May 14, 2019 / 6:04 AM / 4 months ago

Volkswagen wins worker backing for restructuring with $1.1 billion battery plan

BERLIN (Reuters) - Volkswagen workers backed a restructuring of the world’s largest carmaker on Tuesday after Chief Executive Herbert Diess pledged to spend 1 billion euros ($1.1 billion) on a new battery cell production plant near its headquarters in Lower Saxony.

Diess needs the support of Volkswagen’s powerful unions as he attempts to slim down and simplify the German company, which has 12 brands spanning trucks, buses, motorbikes, cars and electric bicycles.

VW’s leadership has embraced a strategic shift towards e-mobility, which requires less manpower to produce cars, to help it shed the shadow of the diesel emissions test cheating scandal which damaged its finances and reputation.

Labour opposition has stifled previous restructuring efforts at VW, which also said it plans to list its trucks business, integrating its MAN and Scania divisions to create a global challenger to Daimler and Volvo.

“The employee representatives on the supervisory board welcome the decisions, which they expressly support. These decisions set the course for sustainable further development of secure jobs as well as profitability,” labor chief Bernd Osterloh said in a letter to VW’s employees on Tuesday.

VW had said on Monday it would resume preparations for listing the trucks business, which is called Traton, before the summer break, reversing an earlier decision to postpone the listing due to shaky markets.

It also said it is exploring a sale of MAN Energy Solutions, which makes diesel engines for use in ships and power stations, as well as a full or partial sale, joint ventures or partnerships for transmissions maker Renk.

Reuters reported earlier this month that VW had approached several companies to gauge their interest in buying MAN Energy Solutions, which is expected to achieve a valuation of about 3 billion euros in a potential sale.

Threats by the United States to impose tariffs of up to 25% on Chinese imports sparked fears of a protracted global trade dispute which has rattled investors and sparked a sharp sell-off on equities markets in the past week.

Finance Chief Frank Witter said in a statement that “current market assessments” had encouraged VW to proceed with the Initial Public Offering (IPO), which could yield up to 6 billion euros if a 25 percent stake is listed.

Jefferies analyst Philippe Houchois estimated Traton was worth 15 billion to 16 billion euros.

“A listing should be positive as the current VW balance sheet is in our view a constraint on Traton’s ability to execute on its ‘Global Champion Strategy’.”

Shares in VW, which Diess said would invest the proceeds of the IPO in creating a global trucks business, were up 1.1% at 1212 GMT.

This could allow Volkswagen Truck & Bus to build a war chest to deepen its relationship with Navistar, a U.S. truckmaker in which it owns a 16.85% stake.

“NO LAZY COMPROMISES”

Osterloh said talks between labor representatives and VW management over working conditions and restructuring plans were going well and a conclusion could be reached in May.

VW said it would seek to build a battery cell production factory in Salzgitter, Lower Saxony, if economic pre-conditions, such as subsidized electricity, could be met.

And executive board member Stefan Sommer told journalists that VW was already looking into opening additional battery production sites in Europe.

Volkswagen's CEO Herbert Diess speaks ahead of Volkswagen Group's annual general meeting in Berlin, Germany, May 14, 2019. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke

Diess’ predecessor Matthias Mueller failed to sell non-core assets like Ducati, stifled by supervisory board members from Lower Saxony and the company’s labor representatives who control more than half the seats on the 20-member board.

Osterloh said he would agree to divestments and a transformation if the terms and conditions for employees in units which have been earmarked for disposal are not watered down and if there is industrial logic behind the deal.

“You can rely on one thing, there will be no lazy compromises here,” Osterloh said.

Reporting and Jan C. Schwartz in Berlin; Writing by Edward Taylor; Editing by Kirsten Donovan and Alexander Smith

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