Why Wolfgang Bernhard may finally get Mercedes' top job

Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche was upbeat at the automaker's annual press conference in Stuttgart on Thursday despite the fallout from the departure of long-serving executive Andreas Renschler.

"Changes offer new chances. We have personnel with great potential," Zetsche said.

Wolfgang Bernhard may benefit most from Renschler's exit after suffering many setbacks in his career. The departure of his rival, Renschler, may open the door for Bernhard to run the Mercedes-Benz car brand.

Bernhard was named to the post in 2004 following his stint as Chrysler's cost-killing COO. However, the appointment was rescinded by Daimler's board when he caused an internal furor by calling Mercedes a "restructuring case."

Bernhard went off to run Volkswagen brand and many think he laid the foundations for VW's current success by drastically shaving production costs in VW's bloated German factories during a three-year stint in Wolfsburg.

Zetsche, 60, has been running Mercedes brand for eight years in addition to his Daimler CEO responsibilities. Many financial analysts would like to see this dual role end to allow a single executive to concentrate on raising Mercedes' profitability to the same level as rivals BMW and Audi.

Mercedes employs 40 percent more workers to sell 20 percent fewer cars compared with BMW, according to analysts at ISI Global. Bernstein Research analyst Max Warburton says Daimler shares would soar 10 percent on the day Bernhard took the top job at the Mercedes car unit.

One more plus for Bernhard, 53, is that powerful Daimler union boss Erich Klemm, who blocked Bernhard's advancement, retires in a few months.

You can reach Paul McVeigh at pmcveigh@crain.com

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