Wolfgang Bernhard to Take the Reins at Mercedes-Benz

DRIVETIMES Moving on to Bigger Crises: Wolfgang Bernhard to Take the Reins at
Published: February 23, 2004
When Wolfgang Bernhard parachuted into Auburn Hills, Mich., in October 2000 to help rescue Chrysler from a financial crisis, he was dubbed Robin playing the sidekick to the Batman role assumed by the chief executive, Dieter Zetsche.
Now it is Mr. Bernhard's turn to put on the cape of a superhero-in-chief. Last week, DaimlerChrysler named him the new worldwide head of Mercedes-Benz, whose gold-plated image has been showing signs of tarnish. Mr. Bernhard, who succeeds Jrgen Hubbert, begins his new job on May 1. After a break-in period for Mr. Bernhard, Mr. Hubbert plans to retire.
Overshadowed in his first years in Auburn Hills by Mr. Zetsche, whose walrus mustache and frank comments made him a media favorite, Mr. Bernhard roared into the auto industry's collective consciousness at the Detroit auto show in January 2003.
During a Chrysler product presentation, Mr. Bernhard zoomed onstage astride the Dodge Tomahawk motorcycle, which was essentially a huge Dodge Viper V-10 engine perched between two wheels. The gleaming Tomahawk caused such a stir that Dodge ultimately announced it would build a handful of the superfast cycles for sale.
Yet, Mr. Bernhard, 43, had already gained a following as the head of AMG, Mercedes's high-performance division, a job he held before coming to Auburn Hills. And while some people questioned whether an executive born in Bavaria was right for a top job at Chrysler, Mr. Bernhard has long experience in America.
While a student at the Columbia University Business School, Mr. Bernhard lived on West 119th Street in Manhattan, above a Japanese restaurant whose odors, he has said, permanently ruined his taste for the cuisine. During a summer vacation, he and a pal bought a junker and drove across the United States.
At Chrysler, Mr. Bernhard became known for his incessant questioning style, his fast strides through Chrysler's assembly plants, and his laserlike gaze. Even before the latest promotion, he had earned a spot on the DaimlerChrysler board, where he was the youngest member.
In just over three years in Auburn Hills, he devoted himself to reorganizing the company, whose once-streamlined product development process was scrambled by the 1998 merger of Chrysler with Daimler-Benz. And, Mr. Bernhard carried out Mr. Zetsche's emphasis on new products as the answer to Chrysler's woes.
All is not well at Chrysler yet: it fell almost $700 million short of the break-even position that executives had promised for 2003. The first batch of vehicles introduced during Mr. Bernhard's tenure, especially the Chrysler Crossfire and Chrysler Pacifica, arrived to a mixed reception.
But now, Mr. Bernhard is needed more at Mercedes, which has been sinking in quality surveys in both the United States and Europe, even as its attempts to sell less expensive cars may have diminished the brand's appeal to some Americans. Moreover, in the last decade Mercedes has fallen from first place to third in luxury sales in the United States, outsold by Lexus and BMW.
But Mr. Bernhard's timing is good: Mercedes has new vehicles coming, like the GST (or Grand Sport Tourer), a sleek sport wagon, and a new version of the M-Class sport utility.
What's sure is that Mr. Bernhard will not be wasting time. Just a year after he rocketed into the public eye on the Tomahawk, he turned up the Detroit auto show last month in the Chrysler ME Four-Twelve, an outrageous exotic sports car with a V-12 engine and four turbochargers. Mr. Bernhard promised that a prototype would be road-ready by summer, and so must he be, too but at Mercedes-Benz in Stuttgart.
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