Moving on to Bigger Crises: Wolfgang Bernhard to Take the Reins at
By MICHELINE MAYNARD
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 Jürgen 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
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