Chinese automaker Great Wall is interested in buying Jeep, an iconic American brand, from Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, a move that likely would face political opposition in the U.S. and create angst among workers.
Great Wall told trade publication Automotive News it is "deeply interested," in buying the Jeep brand and has "indirectly expressed interest."
The Chinese automaker has yet to formally declare its interest in Jeep, but a possible acquisition would be in line with chairman Wang Jianjun’s goal, announced in February, of becoming the top specialty SUV producer by 2020.
The company, which was founded in 1984, is headquartered in Baoding, a bit over 90 miles southwest of Beijing. It has 71,617 employees and a market cap or $15.2 billion, according to Forbes. That compares to 234,499 employees and a market cap of $38.54 billion for Fiat Chrysler, according to MarketWatch.
The company advertises two brands, Great Wall and Haval, with cars, trucks and SUVs among its offerings.
Great Wall “has this intention,” the public relations director for Great Wall's Haval SUV brand, Zhao Lijia, told the Associated Press when asked about Jeep. An employee of the press office for the company headquarters, who would give only his surname, Zhang, said, “Yes, we are interested in Jeep.”
Fiat Chrysler, in a statement, said no discussions have occurred with Great Wall.
"Fiat Chrysler Automobiles confirmed that it has not been approached by Great Wall Motors in connection with the Jeep brand or any other matter relating to its business. FCA is fully committed to its 2014-18 plan, having achieved each one of its targets to date and with only six quarters left to its completion."
Nevertheless, Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne said earlier this year the Jeep and Ram brands could be spun off into a standalone company. Marchionne also has been signaling that he is interested in discussions with other automakers about a sale of the company, partial sale or partnership of some kind for more than two years.
The potential sale of Jeep to a Chinese automaker is sure to raise political questions and will present a challenge to President Donald Trump's "America First" mantra.
One potential way around such concerns would be for Great Wall, or any other Chinese automaker, to purchase a minority stake, said Michael Dunne, an automotive analyst who specializes in China.
Chinese companies have shown a willingness to buy some or all of a company, invest in that company and allow the existing management teams to continue managing the company, said Dunne, founder of Dunne Automotive.
"I believe that all parties -- Chinese and American -- are acutely aware of the political atmosphere right now. I would watch for a nuanced or slightly gradual approach," Dunne said.
China's Dongfeng Motors and the French government each invested about 800 million euros, or $942 million, into French automaker PSA Groupe in 2014 in return for a 14% ownership stakes.
Dunne also said the Chinese government is encouraging Chinese automakers to expand globally and to spend money on that expansion rather than on investments inside the country.
"The government is giving the signal…they are giving management a lot of leeway to decide how to manage their profits for future growth," Dunne said. "(Chinese automakers) have ambition. They have money. And they are looking for the smartest way in."
A sale or partial sale of Jeep that is separate from the remainder of the company also would raise concerns about the future of the Dodge and Chrysler brands. Fiat Chrysler has focused far more attention on the development of Jeep, Ram and Alfa Romeo in recent years while investment in the Dodge and Chrysler brands has languished.
Jeep, the rugged SUV brand known for helping the U.S. Army during World War II, is Fiat Chrysler's most successful brand.
The brand has been growing rapidly in recent years and its growth has accounted for a large percentage of Fiat Chrysler's sales and profit growth. Jeep's sales have climbed from less than 500,000 in 2008 to more than 1.4 million last year.
Marchionne set a goal in 2014 for Jeep's annual sales to exceed 2 million SUVs annually by 2018, and the brand is on track to meet that goal, Fiat Chrysler Chief Financial Officer Richard Palmer said earlier this year.
In July, Morgan Stanley analyst Adam Jonas noted that "most investors we speak with do not know how significant Jeep is to the FCA group. ... At this level of volume, we estimate the brand would account for roughly 45% of FCA’s sales, 55% of revenue and nearly 75% of FCA’s (operating profit)."
The size and complexity of a Jeep sale to a company like Great Wall raises questions for some analysts.
Bernstein Research analyst Max Warburton asked in a report today whether the company would have the expertise to operate Jeep, and he raised other issues, including questioning Great Wall's earnings potential based in part on early sales of one of its new SUVs.
"We're ultimately dubious on the likelihood of a Great Wall-Jeep deal, and the odds of success should a deal somehow materialize," the report said.
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