NEW YORK – Chrysler began a marathon bankruptcy court hearing Wednesday to persuade a judge to approve its plan to sell most of its assets to Italian automaker Fiat and save itself from liquidation.
The company was waiting to see whether Judge Arthur Gonzalez would approve the sale despite protests from a group of Indiana state pension and construction funds that hold less than 1 percent of Chrysler's secured debt. If Gonzalez OKs the sale, the automaker could emerge from bankruptcy within weeks.
After hearing about nine hours of testimony, the judge adjourned the hearing until Thursday and anticipated it could stretch through Friday.
Attorneys for Chrysler say unloading the assets to a group led by Italy's Fiat Group SpA is the company's only hope to avoid selling itself off piece-by-piece. They say a leaner Chrysler could shift more easily to smaller, more fuel-efficient cars.
But many Chrysler dealers, bondholders and former employees say they are being steamrolled by the bankruptcy proceedings. Fiat could back out if the deal doesn't close by June 15.
On the other hand, approval of the sale would put Chrysler on track for a quick exit from bankruptcy protection, defying skeptics who insisted such a filing would leave the automaker mired in court for many months.
Both Chrysler LLC and General Motors Corp., which now appears almost certain to file for bankruptcy protection, have been hobbled by the health and pension costs of tens of thousands of unionized retirees, in addition to slumping sales.
Bringing Chrysler and Fiat together would dramatically change the face of the country's third-largest automaker. The current plan calls for Fiat to bring a handful of its small cars to the U.S. in the coming years, filling one of Chrysler's biggest product gaps and pleasing a White House intent on making the nation's fleet of automobiles greener.
Chrysler itself entered bankruptcy with a handful of new vehicles in the works. It plans to begin selling an electric car next year and have six electric vehicles on the road by 2014.
Even if Chrysler comes out of bankruptcy, its challenges are just beginning. Until the Fiat vehicles arrive, it will have to rely on a product lineup that lost billions of dollars last year.
Even then, there is no guarantee Fiats will sell in this country, where they will compete against small cars from established automakers like Hyundai and Kia.
By Wednesday morning, parts suppliers, dealers, former employees and other groups had filed 337 objections to the Chrysler-Fiat deal, although most had been resolved or deferred before the start of Wednesday's hearing.
Some of the strongest opposition to the sale came from lawyers representing a pair of Indiana state pension funds and a state construction fund that bought Chrysler debt last year.
Tom LaSorda, who served as Chrysler's vice chairman and president but retired after the automaker went into Chapter 11, was questioned for more than an hour about Chrysler's search for a global partner and how the deal with Fiat came to be reached.
"There was nobody out there that was willing to provide a cash infusion," Lasorda said of Chrysler's search for a partner. "But Fiat brought technology and platforms that were just as valuable or even better."
Robert Manzo, an executive director with the restructuring group Capstone Advisory Group LLC and one of Chrysler's top financial advisers, testified for more than four hours.
He said the debtholders were the main roadblock that kept Chrysler from restructuring out of court, and Chrysler offered them a majority stake in the new company, but they refused to negotiate.
But Alfredo Altavilla, Fiat's chief executive for powertrain technologies and head of business development, later testified that it's doubtful Fiat would have gone through with the deal had Chrysler not filed for bankruptcy protection, regardless of what happened with the debtholders.
"We would have needed to reconsider whether to consummate a transaction, but in all likelihood, we would have not," Altavilla said.
Early in the hearing, Gonzalez denied a motion by the Indiana state funds' lawyers for more time to prepare for the sale hearing.
The three funds bought Chrysler debt last year and hold a combined $42.5 million of the company's total $6.9 billion in secured debt.
In the days leading up to its bankruptcy filing, Chrysler reached an agreement with most of its bondholders in which they would receive a combined $2 billion in a deal worth 29 cents on the dollar.
But some bondholders refused to support it, saying that as secured lenders they deserved more.