In the spring of 2005, David Stockman at last reaped the reward of the monopolist.
Stockman, who once served as Ronald Reagan's budget director, spent two decades on Wall Street preparing for this moment. After stints at Salomon Brothers and the Blackstone Group, Stockman in 1999 set up his own private investment fund, Heartland Industrial Partners. He then used Heartland to shape a set of companies -- mainly in the automotive sector -- each dedicated to dominating a particular group of production activities.
Of all Stockman's efforts, his most audacious centered on a firm named Collins & Aikman. Stockman used C&A as a vehicle to buy up small producers of interior components like dashboards and seats, and he swiftly captured a position supplying parts to more than 90 percent of all cars built in America. Although the acquisition spree left C&A saddled with debt, Stockman was so pleased with C&A's prospects that in 2003 he assumed control as chief executive officer.
When the time came to choose his first target, Stockman took aim at Chrysler. The company offered ready cash; Chrysler was still controlled by the deep-pocketed German automaker Daimler. And it had a fat vulnerability; in early 2005 the company had a big hit with its Chrysler 300 sedan. Stockman's message was simple: Pay a premium for C&A?manufactured components, or he would shut off the flow of critical supplies to the main assembly line of this highly lucrative car.
Not many years ago, it was all but unthinkable that a mere supplier would dare to hold up one of the Big Three in such a blatant manner. As The Detroit Free Press reported at the time, such acts were considered "the auto industry equivalent of a nuclear weapon -- rarely threatened and almost never used." But Stockman's gambit worked perfectly. Chrysler agreed to provide C&A with between $65 million and $75 million in the second and third quarters of 2005. Better yet, General Motors, Toyota, and other big automakers with North American...