As Dr. Z Prepares to Move On, Daimler Taps a Swede for CEO Job

Steph Willems
by Steph Willems

Daimler AG and its Mercedes-Benz division won’t have Dieter Zetsche at the helm for much longer. The mustachioed, jeans-loving chief executive, who’s headed the automaker since 2000, leaves the position in May, the automaker announced Wednesday.

Dr. Z isn’t leaving the company — come May, the 65-year-old will accept the role of chairman of the group’s supervisory board. Occupying Zetsche’s former position as head of Daimler and the Mercedes-Benz brand will be the first non-German CEO in the company’s exceptionally long history.

Ola Källenius, a Swedish national, currently serves as group research chief and development head for Mercedes-Benz. Joining the automaker in 1993, the 49-year-old Kaellenius eventually found himself in charge of sales for the Mercedes-Benz division. He later served as head of the automaker’s AMG performance sub-brand before stepping into the role of development chief in 2016. Källenius joined the board of management in 2015.

Zetsche won’t take on the chairman role immediately, but company policy requires him to step down as CEO following the annual shareholders’ meeting to start a two-year cooling off period. The longtime boss officially replaces Dr. Manfred Bischoff in the chairman seat once his five-year term ends in May, 2021.

“As a long-standing member of the Board of Management and Chairman of the Board of Management, Dieter Zetsche has played a key role in shaping Daimler AG and has ensured its strategically outstanding positioning for the mobility of the future. His expertise and experience are extremely valuable for our company,” said Bischoff in a statement. “Dieter Zetsche is predestined also to lead the company’s Supervisory Board prudently and successfully.”

As for Dr. Z’s successor, Bischoff, not surprisingly, had nothing but praise. “In Ola Källenius, we are appointing a recognized, internationally experienced and successful Daimler executive as Chairman of the Board of Management of Daimler AG and Head of Mercedes-Benz Cars.”

Zetsche backed that up, saying, “In various positions at Daimler, Ola Källenius has earned not only my respect, but also the recognition of his colleagues in very diverse areas. At the same time, he contributes a valuable international perspective.”

The hiring of Källenius and the relaxing of rigid, quintessentially German management norms at the automaker is a strategic move. Daimler wants to become more nimble, more modern, and better able to turn on a dime to capitalize on the opportunities of a changing automotive landscape. The rise of electrification and autonomy requires it. To this end, Zetsche began bringing more voice, and funding, to lower-level employees — those typically suppressed by cumbersome upper management (unless they submitted a fully fleshed-out plan).

Speaking to Reuters, Juergen Pieper, an analyst at Bankhaus Metzler, said, “Kaellenius can certainly ‘sell’ a new era better than alternative candidates could have.”

Other changes are afoot at Daimler. Wilko Stark, head of Daimler and Mercedes-Benz strategy, becomes head of Mercedes-Benz procurement and supplier quality on October 1st. Sajjad Khan, current head of digital vehicle and mobility, takes control of Daimler’s connected autonomous and electric vehicle architecture organization.

Given the rising importance of the automaker’s AMG sub-brand, Tobias Moers, CEO of Mercedes-AMG GmbH, will report directly to the head of Mercedes-Benz Cars. All appointments are effective October 1st.

[Image: Daimler AG]

Steph Willems
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  • DeadWeight DeadWeight on Sep 26, 2018

    Doc Z is one of the nicest, smartest (very humbly), most righteous person ps I've ever met, and had the distinct pleasure of getting to know. I've been to several social events at his former home in Oakland County, or put together for him or by him (and his late, amazingly gracious wife) at numerous restaurants or banquet facilities. He is the kind of guy who constructively mentored many younger engineers and execs, no conditions attached, out of the goodness of his heart. Also, his late wife, Gisela Zetsche, who passed away in 2010, was an incredibly gracious and warm person, and her passing cut a huge chunk out of Dr. Z's soul, for reasons obvious to anyone who knew her. I've rarely met nicer, more hospitable, more generous, more decent people in my years on this earth.

  • WildcatMatt WildcatMatt on Oct 04, 2018

    I have nothing really to add here, just that seeing Dr. Manfred Bischoff's name keeps reminding me of the Gunter Bischoff character in Neal Stephenson's book Cryptonomicon, and that makes me laugh.

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