After Investindustrial’s Andrea Bonomi announced to the Financial Times that the private-capital firm intended to sell Ducati for a cool 1 billion euros, the whole financial world began probing for the names of the potential suitors.
The motorcycling world did the same, but with a different spirit: Ducati ranks high on the roster of most-loved motorcycle brands, and enthusiasts around the world are concerned about the “qualifications” of ownership candidates: The buyer needs to be able to keep Ducati on its present course of building high-performance, high-technology and high-style motorcycles.
This type of well-guided, respectful stewardship did not take place when the Texas Pacific Group equity fund took over Ducati in the 1990s, nor even when Investindustrial acquired the majority holding in the brand from TPG in 2008. Despite this, the strength of Ducati’s image has grown enormously thanks to the quality of its models, as well as from its success in World Superbike and MotoGP racing (despite recent setbacks in the latter). Even the hiring of Valentino Rossi, for the little it produced on the track, enhanced Ducati’s image.
In the days since the announcement, the list of potential acquirers included (an improbable from the beginning) BMW to Volkswagen (through is subsidiary Audi) to Mercedes-AMG to India’s Mahindra and Hero, just to name the most visible, powerful transportation brands. Let me limit my guesswork to the two names that appeared most credible from the beginning: Mercedes-AMG and Audi.
Indeed, Mercedes-AMG appeared very credible. It sponsors the Ducati MotoGP team by supplying a whole fleet of very hot sedans and SUVs. In addition, Ducati created a special AMG edition of the successful Diavel power cruiser. The Daimler-Benz Group is involved in a wide array of industrial activities, all of which are related to vehicular production, including aircraft. Why not motorcycles?
Acquiring Ducati would have ensured a very strong jump-start for Mercedes in the two-wheel segment, as well as a good opportunity to instantly challenge its traditional automotive “enemy,” BMW. Despite how logical this all sounded, not a single note of gossip surfaced anywhere between Bologna and Stuttgart to support this hypothesis.
The VW-Audi candidature appeared less credible. One early guess as to why the leading European automotive group might be interested in acquiring Ducati is because the addition of motorcycles would lower the corporate average CO2 emissions, thus helping dodge the ever more stringent limits. But adding Ducati’s current production of 40,000 bikes per year to close to 4 million cars would not make much of a difference in the end.
More likely motivation is that VW-Audi President and CEO Ferdinand Piech, nephew of legendary Ferdinand Porsche, loves Ducatis and their desmo exclusivity. Is that enough to throw on the table a cool 1 billion euros? Obviously not, but Mr. Piech has never been an obvious character. Through upmarket Audi (not proletarian VW, a significant difference) Piech owns Lamborghini, Bentley and Bugatti, three of the most exotic brands in the auto industry, and Ducati would fit in very nicely. When looked at from this point of view, it starts to make sense. And Mr. Piech has always been fiercely competitive with BMW.
The Audi scenario has a certain appeal, because the company has proven very capable of managing exotic brands, with both Lamborghini and Bentley both now very successful after poor performance under previous ownerships. And the spirit and heritage of the two brands has never been “Germanized.”
While the last portion of Bonomi’s announcement stated that if Ducati didn’t find a suitable partner/owner, it would go public again, German media is reporting talks with Audi are quite advanced. During my visit to the factory a few days ago, everyone on the upper floors at Ducati was totally tight-lipped, which is to be expected at this stage of the game. But the game is not over yet.