DETROIT -- Lear Corp. sees an opportunity to grab more interior trim business.
On Monday, Lear said it is teaming up with buyout king Wilbur Ross Jr., a deep-pocketed private investor who made his mark and considerable profits consolidating the U.S. steel industry.
Lear and Ross are joining with mutual fund firm Franklin Mutual Advisers LLC to create a joint venture to buy companies that make interior components.
Target No. 1 for the acquisition plan is part or all of Collins & Aikman Corp., a supplier of interior trim, instrument panels and convertible tops.
Collins & Aikman has been in U.S. bankruptcy court since last May.
The distressed auto interior trim business is expected to create more opportunities for the Lear/Ross venture.
"This is an opportunity to be a significant player in this space," Lear CFO David Wajsgras said of his company's plans to grow its struggling interior trim business. Lear's trim business generates between $3 billion and $3.5 billion in sales annually.
The joint venture with Ross does not include Lear's seating or electrical business units.
Lear, of Southfield, Mich., ranks No. 7 on the Automotive News list of top 100 global suppliers with worldwide original-equipment automotive parts sales of $17.0 billion in 2004.
Lear has long been the most active auto supplier consolidator, with 18 acquisitions and numerous joint ventures during the past decade. But this is the first time that the company has taken a back seat to a partner. Ross will be the majority owner of the venture
This also is the first time that Lear has sought to acquire troubled companies.
Wajsgras downplayed the risk. He says Ross and others are to put up the cash. Lear's contribution to the venture includes the operational management and its own interior trim business.
Wajsgras did not rule out preemptive efforts by other potential buyers. Plastech Engineered Products Inc. had indicated its interest in Collins & Aikman.
The new Lear/Ross venture could be operating within six to 12 months.
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