COMMENT: Oh Lord, won't you buy me an Audi or BMW?

COMMENT
Arjen Bongard is editor of Automotive News Europe, and acting editor for Automobilwoche

Being the head of Mercedes-Benz was once the most coveted job in the German auto industry. When Eckhard Cordes took the job less than a year ago he followed in the footsteps of Juergen Hubbert, Helmut Werner and other industry giants.

But when the Juergen Schrempp era ended, there was no longer a future for Cordes in the company. After his more or less surprising resignation several days ago, something unusual happened. Three of the highest profile "car guys" in the auto industry -- Wolfgang Bernhard, Carl-Peter Forster and Wolfgang Reitzle -- with or without being asked, unhesitatingly proclaimed that they had no interest in the suddenly-vacant Mercedes job.

No interest in leading what is still the most important luxury brand in Germany? No interest in representing the brand that was once synonymous with wealth, quality and a confirmation that one had arrived?

Mercedes once stood for all that.

"Oh Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes-Benz?" as Janis Joplin sang in her social commentary back in 1970, setting ownership of the German status symbol on par with happiness and contentment.

That was then.

For some time now, blogs, newspapers and magazines have been filled with stories about Mercedes' sinking star. And not without reason. Despite successful efforts to improve quality, Mercedes still finds itself lower in the quality rankings than management would like.

That's on top of problems with the unprofitable Smart small-car brand and with the corruption scandal, which still hasn't been cleared up.

For many customers in Mercedes' core target group, this has been too much. They are buying a BMW or an Audi instead.

Is it any wonder that the new chief executive, Dieter Zetsche, has decided to run Mercedes himself? A smart move, and apparently one more indication of a trend.

Fiat's chief executive, Sergio Marchionne, is also head of Fiat's reeling auto division. Carlos Ghosn is directly in charge of the Renault brand. And GM's most important market, North America, falls under Rick Wagoner's direct personal responsibility.

When a chief executive simultaneously heads up the most important business area, this is an admission that this area needs the attention of the company's highest-ranking executive. That applies to Fiat, and also to DaimlerChrysler and Mercedes.

There was also a sound, practical reason for Zetsche's decision. Wolfgang Bernhard and Carl-Peter Forster are certain to have contracts with long cancellation periods and non-compete clauses with equally long durations. One is reminded of Martin Leach's unsuccessful attempt to switch from Ford to Fiat.

As good as they may be, the candidates from the brand's own ranks don't yet have that combination of technical expertise, company-wide experience and marketing savvy that are prerequisites for the top job at Mercedes.

Then there is the fact that this arrangement spares Zetsche the traditionally difficult discussions between the DaimlerChrysler chief executive and the head of the Mercedes brand. And it certainly eases the task of finding a convincing solution to the problems with Smart.

Returning the Mercedes star to its former brilliance should stand high up on Zetsche's agenda.

For the most part, the product problems are already solved. But it will be a long time before that star regains its luster.

0

Shares

Newsletters