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Farewell to the modest man who changed Mercedes-Benz

Hubbert poses next to a A class in Berlin, November 1997. Photo credit: Reuters

Juergen Hubbert, the man who modernized Mercedes-Benz, always struck people as one of the least ego-driven big-time auto executives they ever met.

It might have been his selflessness that allowed Hubbert to last 15 years as head of Mercedes, one of the hottest seats in the car business.

Hubbert fought hard as Mercedes went through the traumatic A-class tip-over crisis in 1997. But he never fought for himself - only for the car and the company.

Two men were under tremendous pressure after a Swedish car magazine rolled an A class in a "moose test" maneuver: Hubbert and Mercedes' young sales and marketing boss, Dieter Zetsche.

Zetsche had been Mercedes product development head when the A class was being developed, so he was vulnerable. But Hubbert was ready to take the fall. "Dieter is a young man with a young family," he told a colleague. "I've had a great career. I'll go."

In the end, neither man had to leave. Hubbert moved swiftly and decisively, taking the engineering and public relations steps needed to save the A class.

Zetsche survived to lead the Chrysler group's latest turnaround.

Could say 'no'

Hubbert, who plunged Mercedes into segments and doubled its worldwide sales, officially stepped down Oct. 1. Eckhard Cordes, 53, who headed the commercial vehicles division, took over as head of the Mercedes-Benz car group.

Hubbert joined the company in 1965 as a young engineer and has been in charge of the Mercedes passenger-car business since 1989. Now 65, Hubbert will head the DaimlerChrysler AG Executive Automotive Committee until April, when he will retire.

Hubbert may have been the only man that all-powerful DaimlerChrysler Chairman Juergen Schrempp ever feared.

"Hubbert was someone who could say 'no' to Schrempp," said another German senior executive last week. "He earned the money that Schrempp could spend."

Had he wanted to, many believe Hubbert could have become the head of Daimler-Benz. But Hubbert's ambition had limits. He seemed happy as long as he was designing, manufacturing and selling Mercedes-Benz cars.

Tanned, silver-haired, aristocratic in appearance and manner, Hubbert did things his predecessors at Mercedes vowed they'd never do - such as build a plant in the United States. He also launched the M-class SUV, A-class compact and the Smart minicar.

He expanded the Mercedes product line beyond what it was when he took responsibility for the three-pointed star from Werner Niefer. By the time Hubbert stepped down this month, the Mercedes vehicle range had grown from five cars to 18.

When he took over in 1989, he inherited an overengineered S-class sedan developed under previous management. The car was too big, too heavy, too complex, and Hubbert knew it. He also said it; he was the most candid car executive in Europe.

The S class looked silly compared with the sleek BMW 7-series competitor of its day. Hubbert spent his career steering Mercedes from the legacy of that S class.

"He brought to Mercedes a gentlemanly style of behavior as a competitor," said former BMW CEO Eberhard von Kuenheim last week. "He accepted that it was his duty to be a competitor, but it was on a very friendly basis."

Some say Hubbert saved the merger of Daimler-Benz and Chrysler Corp. There was a tremendous amount of German-American culture clash in the early days of DaimlerChrysler, but no one at the Chrysler group clashed with Hubbert. He was everyone's colleague; a fixed point for both sides; a voice of reason.

He is not one to talk about himself. His most famous personal revelation: He has collected more than 3,000 teddy bears. He still has his first white Steiff teddy bear, one of the few things that survived the bombings of his hometown during World War II.

Rough patches

Hubbert hit a few rough patches near the end of his career. The product proliferation led to problems. The engineering forces were spread too thin and quality lapsed.

Before his departure, Hubbert declared that quality was the company's top priority, and he said Mercedes-Benz would sacrifice profits to correct problems. In an interview at last month's Paris auto show, Hubbert admitted that the first-generation M class wasn't as true a Mercedes as the second would be.

This year, Hubbert was bothered by the bull-in-china-shop approach of his designated successor, former Chrysler COO Wolfgang Bernhard. Two days before Bernhard was to take the job on May 1, it was yanked from him.

Hubbert's public goodbyes were said Sept. 23 at the Paris auto show. His eyes welled with tears, Hubbert said farewell to journalists at the company's press conference simply by noting this would be his last auto show.

It is hard for America to grasp how hard it is to be the head of Mercedes in Germany. The brand is a national treasure, and everyone thinks he knows best. But Hubbert never wavered, never lost his cool.

He once confided that he never wanted his children to do what he did, to have so much responsibility - the job was too demanding, required too much of him. Yet he did it longer and better than anyone.

Richard Johnson and Diana T. Kurylko covered Europe for Automotive News.

Hubbert's rise to the top

Born: July 24, 1939, in Hagen, Westphalia, Germany

Education: University of Stuttgart, engineering degree in 1965

Career highlights

1965: Joined Daimler-Benz

 

1973: Headed pre-production shop at the Sindelfingen plant

1984: Head of production engineering at Sindelfingen

1985: Head of corporate planning and car and commercial vehicle committees

1989: Head of Mercedes-Benz passenger car division

1997: Named member of Daimler-Benz management board

1998: Named member of DaimlerChrysler management board

2004: Chairman, DaimlerChrysler Executive Automotive Committee

You can reach Richard Johnson at rjohnson@crain.com

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