It takes little more than a glance to realize Dieter Zetsche isn’t your typical auto industry executive. Sure, he wears the appropriately tailored suits, and can rattle off facts and figures as well as any other automotive CEO. But there’s also the bushy, trademark moustache, bald dome and twinkling eyes that hint at the quick sense of humor that was the centerpiece of a series of TV ads featuring Zetsche during his tenure as CEO of Chrysler Corp.
Running that struggling U.S. operation was one of the toughest challenges of his long career, he admits, and it wasn’t much easier to approve the break-up of Chrysler’s nine-year marriage to Germany’s Daimler. But the 55-year-old Zetsche has faced plenty of challenges since taking the reigns from the controversial Juergen Schrempp, the architect of a vast expansion of the Daimler empire, which included the Chrysler deal. Since returning to Germany, Zetsche has returned to basics. Though Daimler still holds a stake in the parent of Airbus, it has re-emphasized its roots as an automaker, with brands like Smart and the flagship Mercedes-Benz.
Like virtually every automaker, Mercedes has been hit hard by the global automotive downturn; indeed, the economic turmoil has had an unusually large impact on the luxury car market. But Zetsche remains “”carefully optimistic” that Mercedes will continue to be one of the globe’s premier marques, and emerge from the recession stronger than ever. Paul A. Eisenstein caught up with the Turkish-born executive recently, and shared this conversation…
Q: Dr. Zetsche, how do you see the year just ended?
Zetsche: Two thousand eight had two faces, two parts. The first half, we were running pretty much at the levels we set for ourselves, and then, during the second half, the world changed all together, as world markets declined, month after month, and always worse than forecast. But we did reasonably well, especially when compared to 2007, which was a record year for us. We can’t spend all time guesstimating how the markets will develop (in 2009), so we will focus on our strength, which is product, and have major products ready for launch, such as the new E-Class. There is a paradigm shift towards lower CO2, so we are looking at this crisis as an opportunity. So, we are carefully optimistic about the future of our company.