The myth of Cerberus

May 30, 2007, 5:13 PM UTC

What’s fun about reporting on a company that actively shuns the spotlight is that it’s possible to discover what the company might really be about, as opposed to the line of BS most companies typically work overtime to sell. An example is the reporting Katie Benner and I did for our article in the current issue of Fortune, The dog that ate Detroit, about the private-equity/hedge-fund firm Cerberus Capital Management.

This is hardly the definitive take on Cerberus. (BusinessWeek made as good an attempt as any publication in 2005.) But there are fascinating nuggets, like our account of how Cerberus has made itself a friend of labor in several situations, before cozying up to the United Autoworkers and Canadian Autoworkers in its planned buyout of DaimlerChrysler (DCX).

And here’s a nugget that didn’t make it into the article: Cerberus’s mystique has grown to the point where it fuels rumors even when it fails. For instance, Vanessa Castagna, an ex-J C Penney (JCP) executive whom Cerberus installed to run Mervyn’s department stores, which Cerberus controls, recently left both Mervyn’s and Cerberus. That turnaround apparently is still in process. Because Mervyn’s is private and Cerberus operates so quietly, Castagna’s departure didn’t get a lot of general attention. But it was noted intensely in the retail industry, where a rumor began to circulate that Castagna had left Mervyn’s because Cerberus was preparing to buy Gap (GPS), which sorta, kinda has put itself up for sale. Nothing has come of the rumors. Not yet, anyway.