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Mercedes is slow, but listening

SAN FRANCISCO -- It was good-natured ribbing Friday afternoon when AutoNation CEO Mike Jackson pointed up the age-old conservative ways of Mercedes-Benz -- slow decision-making, timid product changes, tight Stuttgart control…

But he got a surprise.

“I walked in your shoes a decade ago,” he reminded Ernst Lieb, CEO of Mercedes-Benz U.S.A., as the two of them answered questions from an industry audience at the Palace Hotel. Jackson was CEO of Mercedes before taking over AutoNation.

“I think back on those days and I realize I spent 5 percent of my brain power figuring out how to succeed in the market place,” Jackson said, “and the other 95 percent trying to convince Stuttgart that it was right thing to do. I would hope a decade later it’s different.”

“My,” Lieb deadpanned, absorbing the razz, “some things never change.”

But things are changing for the old brand, he went on.

In late 2007, Lieb stuck his neck out to get Stuttgart to give him $250 million to seed an overhaul of Mercedes’ U.S. dealer body. This summer, the 353-dealer network will complete their Autohaus project, in which they used the carrot of Lieb’s funds to invest $1.4 billion of their own money on facilities.

Lieb admits that undertaking so much store investment during the past two years of U.S. market crises made him feel “suicidal” at times.

But to bring the dealers even closer to the breast of the parent company now, Stuttgart is planning to bring the entire U.S. retail body to Germany in the first week of April. There, Mercedes’ normally hyper-secret executives will lay out the next three years of product plans for the retailers, Lieb told Jackson.

He conceded that Stuttgart is still very possessive of its control.

But imagining his dealers in Germany, he added: “We’re eager to see what their reactions are. Maybe it will change some of our assumptions and bring about a change, so that instead of bringing something out in 2015, we bring it out a little before.”

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