Leuliette named Visteon CEO, puts focus on China

Dustin Walsh

Published: October 2, 2012 6:00 am ET

Related to this story

Topics Automotive, Mergers & Acquisitions

DETROIT (Oct. 2, 8:25 a.m. ET) — Visteon Corp., confirming weeks of speculation, on Oct. 1 named Timothy Leuliette its permanent CEO and president.

Leuliette, 62, will also be replaced as chairman of the supplier by current board member Francis Scricco, 63.

In an interview with Crain’s Detroit Business, Leuliette said he is focused on Asia.

The move to make Leuliette the permanent CEO follows the resignation of Chairman and CEO Don Stebbins, who stepped down Aug. 10 after months of boardroom turmoil. The board appointed Leuliette interim chairman and CEO.

Relations between Stebbins and the board deteriorated over a plan to break up and sell large stakes of the auto supplier, a move Stebbins opposed.

On Sept. 19, Leuliette confirmed a plan to sell Visteon’s standalone climate control business to its Halla Climate Control Corp. joint venture, which it owns 70 percent, for cash and that it will sell its stake in the Chinese joint venture Yanfeng Visteon Automotive Trim Systems Co. Ltd.

The move would improve how the business interacts with global customers and increase corporate liquidity, Visteon said in previous presentation. Halla will become the No. 2 player in the global automotive climate business with a 13 percent market share, Leuliette said during today’s interview.

Korean company

Once consolidated, the joint venture will be named Halla-Visteon Climate Group and will be led by a Korean management team with the stock traded on the Korea Exchange.

“Visteon is a $7 billion business with very little debt and a lot of cash, but we have strengths and weaknesses,” he said. “In climate, we’re very strong, but we need to consolidate that business and face the fact that it’s an Asian-centric business.”

He said the company is on target to complete the consolidation of the climate business into Halla in the first quarter of 2013.

Meanwhile, Korean supplier Mando Corp. continues to show interest in acquiring Visteon’s stake in Halla. Last month, Mando announced a Chinese holding company listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange to buy the stake.

Leuliette said the board will consider any offers to acquire the stake, but the company is being set up to run profitably regardless of a deal.

Interiors business

Leuliette said its 50 percent stake in its interiors joint venture Yanfeng will continue to gain value as the company consolidates, but that a deal may take time do to its size and that it’s in China.

"We’ve identified that we’d like to monetize that, but I don’t expect (the deal) to be a quick one,” he said. “In the meantime, the longer we own it, the more it’s worth; and we want to manifest that value to our shareholders.”

Following the closing of the Halla consolidation and if its stake in Yanfeng is sold, Visteon will have little presence left in the United States. Leuliette said the suburban Detroit headquarters will remain, at least as a technical center, but would not speculate whether it would remain their global headquarters.

“We don’t have a huge presence in Southeast Michigan today; it’s just basically our headquarters, and we have some U.S. debt and some unfunded pension,” he said.

“We’re asking the question: ‘Where’s the best place for us to be?’ We still have a lot of customers here in North America. But it doesn’t make sense for a company like Visteon to be global and have your debt in the U.S.”

Asian HQ?

Leuliette said Visteon would see advantages in being headquartered in Asia — specifically, access to Asian credit markets and benefits from currency fluctuations.

However, he said he doesn’t expect the U.S. headcount to change under any change in headquarters location. Visteon currently employs 900 in the U.S.

Leuliette said Visteon’s future isn’t written yet, saying the company has “four to five paths” to shareholder return.

“If there’s any company that has optionality, it’s us,” he said. “We’ve had options for return in the past, but they have not gelled for a value story for the shareholder, but that’s what we’re going to do now.”

The moves provide insight to shareholders and media speculating over Visteon’s future after more than a year of contention in the board room.

During Stebbins tenure, Visteon ended a 16-month Chapter 11 bankruptcy, where Stebbins and bondholders drafted a plan to scrub $2.1 billion in debt and provide the roughly 40 bondholders with an 88 percent ownership stake for $1.25 billion.

Boardroom drama

But in May 2011, Stebbins, chairman at the time, and the rest of the board reached an impasse with the threat of a proxy battle looming. But the proxy fight was sidestepped when the board agreed to allow Cayman Islands-based activist investor Alden Global Capital to place two members on the board.

To return value to the bondholders, Visteon offered $805 million to acquire the remaining 30 percent stake in Halla on July 4, but the deal was rejected after Korea’s National Pension Service, which holds an 8.1 percent stake in Halla, rejected Visteon’s offer.

A deal to sell its global interiors business to Yanfeng also fell apart.

Stebbins and Visteon parted ways on Aug. 10.

Leuliette declined to comment specifically on Stebbins’ relationship with the board, but said: “Don was here during a very challenging time, led the company through a bankruptcy and out. But there comes a time when there’s a difference in the philosophy. Over time the philosophy of the board; we morphed into a different mode.”


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Leuliette named Visteon CEO, puts focus on China

Dustin Walsh

Published: October 2, 2012 6:00 am ET

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