China Shops in the U.S. For Auto Parts Makers

Now that the U.S. auto industry has bounced back from its lows, expect to see an increase in acquisitions of U.S. auto parts makers by Chinese companies seeking to gain access to technology and international markets. While the prices they will have to pay may be higher than in 2008 when the U.S. auto industry was in free fall, a more stable industry will enable Chinese companies to overcome their natural fear of venturing abroad.

As evidence of this coming trend, it was announced Wednesday that Nexteer, a 104-year-old unit of General Motors that has made steering equipment under the name Saginaw Steering Gear, has been sold to Pacific Century Motors, a venture of the city of Beijing’s investment arm, and a closely held Beijing auto parts company called Tempo Group for $450 million. Based in Saginaw, Michigan, Nexteer employs 8,300 people and has 22 factories, six engineering centers and 14 customer-support centers around the world.

Nexteer is Tempo’s second acquisition of a U.S. components company. In 2009, Tempo teamed up with China’s Shougang Corp., formerly the Capital Iron and Steel Co., and the Beijing government to purchase former GM parts maker Delphi Corp.’s brake and chassis business in a deal valued at $100 million, according to The Connors Group, a financial tracking firm.

Given the strong opposition in Congress and by industry associations to Anshan Iron and Steel’s proposed minority investment in a Mississippi steel plant earlier this year, political reaction to the Nexteer deal was relatively mild. Roger Kahn, a Michigan state senator from Saginaw, asked, “Did it really need to be sold to the Chinese? I want to see businesses successful in the U.S. owned in the U.S. This doesn’t meet the standard.” And, one Nexteer worker called the Chinese “commies” and complained to a union official that the U.S. flag and a P.O.W.-M.I.A. memorial flag were taken down when Chinese officials visited recently, but that seemed to be about it as far as objections to the deal.

On the other hand, Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano welcomed the acquisition of Nexteer by Chinese buyers with open arms. Ficano said that there are about 40 Chinese-owned companies operating in Wayne County today, including Nexteer’s new co-owner, Tempo. “They’re global thinkers. The Chinese are going to invest in the U.S.,” Ficano said, adding that Michigan should aggressively pursue such investments. “Why should it be in California, Chicago or New York?”

With 14 percent unemployment in Saginaw, I’d advise State Senator Kahn and that disgruntled Nexteer worker not to look a gift horse in the mouth and to adopt Ficano’s more enlightened approach. Nexteer has been starved for capital under GM’s ownership, and the company has already said that it will be adding 100 engineering jobs and will increase its United Way contributions this year.

Fasten your seat belts!

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