DETROIT - General Motors' seat-making operations are getting a close inspection from a surprise potential buyer: Ford.
Delphi Automotive Systems has been trying to sell its seating operations in Europe and North America since September. Visteon Automotive Systems, Ford's parts subsidiary, is one of five suppliers that recently inspected some of the Delphi plants.
A knowledgeable industry source said Visteon's interest is genuine, but Visteon is not the front runner. 'Visteon is in the loop,' he said. 'There are five companies in the final bidding process, and they are one of them.'
The others are Lear Corp., Magna International, Johnson Controls Inc. and Bertrand Faure.
Visteon's interest is unusual because, for several years, Ford has said it wants out of the seating business, especially the in-house operation in Cologne that provides seats for the Mondeo.
More recently, however, Visteon President Charles Szuluk has suggested that Visteon could win more non-Ford business by designing complete cockpits.
Visteon already produces such key components as instrument panels, climate-control equipment, sound systems, door panels and seats. Szuluk may have his eye on other potential acquisitions, too. Mando Machinery Co. Ltd. - South Korea's largest automotive parts maker - is up for sale.
According to two US union sources, Visteon officials visited Delphi's component plant and its prototype facility in Michigan.
Visteon spokesman Niel Golightly declined to comment on the purpose of the visits. 'We have made it clear that we are pursuing a growth strategy,' he said, 'and acquisitions may be an element of that strategy.'
Delphi also declined to comment.
Lear and Johnson Controls dominate the seating business globally. Some analysts believe GM may prefer to sell to Magna or Bertrand Faure, to develop a stronger No. 3 seating supplier.
Delphi is expected to announce the buyer in March. The winner will inherit 7,000 workers, of factories on two continents and guarantees of future GM contracts.
However, the operation has only one major customer - General Motors - and it is losing $40 million to $50 million a year.