Chrysler Corp., already struggling to shore up its dwindling share of the car market, yesterday prepared for possible battle on another front in the wake of an announcement that California billionaire Kirk Kerkorian has acquired 9.8 percent of the company's shares.
The $272 million stock purchase makes Kerkorian Chrysler's largest shareholder and prompted the automaker to call an emergency session of its board, which quickly moved to toughen anti-takeover provisions of the company's stock-purchase rules.
In a brief statement, Kerkorian, who sold MGM-UA Communications Co. last month for $1.3 billion, said he was buying into Chrysler because of the "high regard" he has for Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca.
As a result, he said he was baffled by Chrysler's decision to strengthen its anti-takeover laws: "We were surprised by the action of the Chrysler board. It is hard for us to see how the steps taken by the board today are in the best interests of all the shareholders."
According to Chrysler, Kerkorian disclosed that he owned slightly more than 4 percent of the company in a meeting with Iacocca Dec. 7. At that meeting, Iacocca asked Kerkorian to accept a "standstill agreement" that would have prevented him from acquiring more Chrysler stock. Kerkorian refused and continued to purchase shares, according to Chrysler officials.
Wall Street analysts couldn't understand why Kerkorian, or anyone, would want to make such a huge purchase of Chrysler shares. The company, America's third largest automaker, has seen its car and truck sales drop 17 percent this year; in the latest quarter, it lost $214 million.
"I don't understand it. I can't figure it out," said analyst Maryann Keller, commenting on Kerkorian's buy of 22 million shares of Chrysler's common stock. "At the moment, it just doesn't make sense to me," said Keller, an analyst with Furman, Selz, Mager Dietz and Birney in New York.
Even Texas billionaire and computer magnate H. Ross Perot, who met with Iacocca last week, said that he was at a loss to figure out what Kerkorian was up to. "I can't imagine what his strategy is," Perot said. Perot, who once served on the board of General Motors Corp., said that his meeting with Iacocca was about possible sales of computer services to Chrysler.
Chrysler's stock closed yesterday unchanged at $12.25 in apparent reflection of Wall Street's confusion over what Kerkorian's ownership might lead to.
Kerkorian has made surprise tender offers in the past for Western Air Lines Inc., MGM and Columbia Pictures Entertainment Inc. Operating through his Beverly Hills-based holding company, Tracinda Corp., he has become known as an "asset-stripper" for his strategy of buying companies whole and then selling various parts for big profits.
After making high-profile investments for more than two decades, Kerkorian, 73, has remained an enigmatic figure who is sometimes compared to another reclusive billionaire, the late Howard Hughes. His net worth is estimated at $1.25 billion by Forbes magazine.
Kerkorian, the son of immigrant farmers and a junior high school dropout, made his first fortune shortly after World War II by shuttling gamblers to Las Vegas in a surplus bomber. He has been in and out of the airline and hotel-casino businesses since then. At various times, Kerkorian has owned a controlling interest in Western Air Lines, the Flamingo Hotel, the MGM Grand Hotel, and the International Hotel and Casino.
His most infamous involvement, however, has been his two decades as the head of MGM-UA, which Kerkorian patched together from the remnants of two of Hollywood's most venerable studios, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and United Artists.
Kerkorian later sold off the MGM's 3,000-film library to cable TV mogul Ted Turner and its studio lot to Lorimar Telepictures (now owned by Time Warner Inc.). As an aspiring teenage actor in the 1930s, Kerkorian had a 40-cents-an-hour job cleaning the lot at the MGM studio.