COMMENT: Don't worry about Bernhard but do worry about D/C's future

Franz W. Rother is Editor-in-Chief of Automobilwoche

Don't worry about Wolfgang Bernhard's future. Bernhard is a young, dynamic manager who won't be jobless long after he gets over the shock of his sudden demotion from DaimlerChrysler's incoming boss of Mercedes-Benz to a member of the board with no title and no responsibility.

Real car guys like the 43-year-old Bernhard who are courageous enough to make radical changes are rare and in demand. Bernhard has an excellent reputation in the auto industry despite his brash attitude with employees and suppliers.

While he was Chrysler's COO, Bernhard dined out regularly with General Motors' Bob Lutz. Who knows? Maybe Bernhard will soon be on the management board of the world's largest automaker.

What we should worry about is DaimlerChrysler's future.

Juergen Schrempp's determination to hold on to power at the German-American auto giant has opened up old wounds at the company's Stuttgart headquarters.

Last week's eagerly-awaited public appearance of top D/C executives Juergen Hubbert, Dieter Zetsche and Eckhard Cordes at the Innovations Symposium in Stuttgart showed that the rift at the top of the company has not only split the board of directors but the whole group.

Chrysler's executives in Auburn Hills -- including Zetsche -- are shocked that Schrempp so brutally put the head of Bernhard, his protégé, on the block without giving him any warning.

Executives at Mercedes-Benz in Sindelfingen are anxious. They are asking what kind of new disaster has the D/C executive board in mind next. They worry also that Mercedes and Chrysler will become more interlinked on the technical level after Schrempp's Misubishi strategy collapsed.

The "brand bible" that strategy director Ruediger Grube put together could be trashed -- which means that Mercedes' image will continue to go downhill.

Schrempp is trying to duck D/C's problems. His motto seems to be: "The world corporation is dead, long live the world corporation!"

The partnerships with Mitsubishi Motors and with Hyundai may be dead, or at least lying on their deathbeds, but now the group is celebrating its latest "coup" -- it has finally received permission to build 25,000 units of Mercedes C- and E- class models a year in China.

The fact that this represents no more than 0.5 percent on the booming Chinese auto market does not seem to matter. It is peanuts compared with D/C's grandiose plans to make a quarter of the group's sales in Asia.

Meanwhile the Lord of the Peanuts, Hilmar Kopper, head of the Daimler supervisory board, is busy on the domestic front refurbishing his house, leaving D/C's problems to his buddy Schrempp.

Kopper announced to the Frankfurter Allgemeiner newspaper that the world corporation is not dead -- because the world corporation never existed in the first place. That's how easy some people make life for themselves.

Looking at the events of the past few weeks through Kopper's eyes, D/C's divorces from Mitsubishi Motors and Hyundai were probably no more than a streamlining operation.

What will happen if Chrysler also fails to succeed? Chrysler will need more investment after the separation from Mitsubishi. If Chrysler announces a small operating profit in the first quarter, it will not make a big difference.

Zetsche will pay the price for it all. But he probably does not have any illusions about his future since Bernhard's dismissal.

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