For Johnnie Breed the only obstacle to building Breed Technologies Inc. into the world's third largest supplier of safety systems was Lawrence Bossidy.
Bossidy, the chairman of AlliedSignal Corp., was legendary for his bargaining skills.
In early 1997, Bossidy was prepared to sell the company's Safety Restraint Systems division - for a tall price. That division had enjoyed substantial growth in airbag and seat belt revenues, and General Motors was a key customer. That was a siren song to Johnnie Breed.
'GM was our growth engine,' she said in an interview. Breed, who believed her company had to 'get big or get out,' could more than double her company's size to $1.7 billion in sales and become North America's largest seat belt supplier.
Breed thinks big
Breed had acquired nine other companies in three years, but the deal with AlliedSignal was the company's most important.
Leading the negotiations was Johnnie Breed, a travel industry entrepreneur who had married founder Allen Breed and succeeded him as chairman. Aside from her husband, she kept her own counsel on big issues, a former insider said.
The acquisition of AlliedSignal's safety restraints business was her idea, and it was her overtures that brought Bossidy and John Barter, head of AlliedSignal's automotive group, to the table.
Bossidy's opening price was 10 times the operation's projected 1998 earnings, or nearly $900 million. Johnnie Breed countered with an offer of about $390 million, according to a lawsuit Breed filed earlier this year in Florida's 10th Circuit Court in Polk County.
Earlier, Bossidy's price had scared away Autoliv Inc. The giant Swedish safety systems supplier was prepared to pay about half of Bossidy's asking price.
The price tag prompted alarm at GM. The automaker was depending on AlliedSignal to supply seat belts for its full-sized pickups. GM could ill afford a financial stumble by a new owner.
Robert Socia, then GM's executive director for worldwide purchasing, asked Johnnie Breed 'if she understood the magnitude of the acquisition and considered the impact' on Breed's financial situation.
Socia's fears were spelled out in documents filed in support of a lawsuit GM filed against Breed last August in Oakland Circuit Court in Pontiac, Michigan.
Socia's warning was clear: GM would not move its business, but it would tolerate no price increases should Breed overpay Bossidy.
Johnnie Breed's pledge to stand behind her company's prices carried enormous risks: Seat belts carried scant profit margins. Worse, Johnnie Breed would have to pay for it with borrowed money, not company stock, the currency of so many industry deals.
After months of negotiations, Johnnie Breed emerged in September 1997 with a contract. The deal gave her company a lineup of airbags, sensors and seat belts. Her company could produce a complete line of safety systems, but it didn't come cheap. She agreed to pay $710 million.
Socia's worst fears materialized last August. In a pricing dispute with GM, Johnnie Breed halted seat belt shipments to nine GM truck plants. For three days, GM frantically juggled its seat belt inventory to avoid a production shutdown.
The automaker labeled Breed's move 'extortion' and obtained a court order to force Breed to resume shipments.
Shortly after that, Breed suffered yet another reverse when it was forced to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Johnnie Breed's gamble had failed.