British union leaders have left a meeting with senior BMW managers in Munich, without securing assurances about the future of the loss-making Rover Group. Rover’s parent company, BMW, has said a sell-off of Rover’s car division is just one of the options it is considering.
Tony Woodley of the transport union described BMW as a “dishonourable” firm which planned to “cut and run” at the expense of British workers. BMW’s board will meet on Thursday to discuss proposals to sell or close the loss-making parts of Rover, and focus on profitable divisions like MG, Landrover and Range Rover.
Such a move could cost thousands of jobs both at Rover and at the up to 500 firms that supply parts to the company. The impact on the economy of the West Midlands could be devastating. Prime Minister Tony Blair told parliament on Wednesday that he attached “enormous strategic importance” to the company and promised to “do everything we possibly can … to safeguard the future of the plant”.
Trade and Industry Secretary Stephen Byers cleared his diary to talk both to Rover’s chairman and his bosses at BMW.
Germany’s Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper reported on Wednesday evening that the internal row over Rover’s future would cost three top managers at BMW their job. Carl-Peter Forster, Henrich Heitmann und Wolfgang Ziebart, in charge of sales, development and production respectively, would be “sacked”, the paper said.
The paper also reported that a group of British investors based on the Cayman islands had made an offer for Rover’s car division. Other reports suggested that mystery bidder may be former Rover marketing director Kevin Morley. He was reportedly preparing to mount a bid through a venture capital firm called Alchemy.
Mr Morley, speaking his from home in the exclusive Boars Hill area of Oxford said: “I’m not prepared to discuss anything.” Mr Morley left Rover in 1992 to set up his own advertising agency, which he later sold. He was also behind the unsuccessful consortium that was bidding to keep Rolls-Royce in British hands.
Professor Kumar Bhattcharyya of Warwick University, who is close to Rover, said he thought the bid “is a serious offer and will be considered seriously”.
Mr Woodley, national officer of the Transport and General Workers Union, said he believed the break-up was in progress and he accused the firm of treating staff like “cannon fodder”. Unions and business leaders have called on the German car firm to make an immediate decision about Rover’s future.
But there is great bitterness about the broken promises by the German firm.
BMW is reported to have become concerned about mounting losses, which are expected to reach £800m this year. The last straw has been the high pound, which made Rover uncompetitive in Europe. Sir Ken Jackson, general secretary of the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union, said BMW had previously given assurances that it remained committed to Rover.
He said: “I am confident that BMW will remain committed to Rover but they have to make their position absolutely clear. It is time to remove any shadow of doubt about the future.”
The Birmingham Chamber of Commerce and Industry said that, if true, the BMW move would be a “devastating” blow for the West Midlands. Birmingham Northfield MP Richard Burden, whose constituency covers Longbridge, said BMW officials had personally assured him they were committed to Longbridge “for the long term”, and he found it astonishing that the company was not denying the reports.