DAIMLERCHRYSLER'S negotiations with Nissan Motor Co. offer an interesting early test for the new company and its co-chairmen. Who will be D/C's lead strategic thinker in this high-stakes poker game, Bob Eaton or Juergen Schrempp?
At times like these, when companies are up for sale, automakers are only as good as their chief executives. D/C has two good men for the job and that may be one too many.
Juergen Schrempp is a born dealmaker. He is the originator of DaimlerChrysler. But Eaton also has a fine track record in this kind of overheated environment.
While president of GM Europe in 1989 he out-foxed Vittorio Ghidella of Fiat to win control of Saab. In a showdown with Ford's Lindsey Halstead earlier that year he pulled out of the Jaguar bidding rather than pay $2.5 billion. At the time most felt he possessed the cooler head.
Eaton refused to be cowed by the Chinese government in 1994. He withdrew Chrysler from a dead-end agreement to build minivans in Guangzhou Province. And with Schrempp last year he negotiated the deal of the half-century in record time.
Eaton is a smooth operator and a genius at keeping a secret. The Saab negotiations are legendary. Fiat had called a press conference to announce that it was buying the company on the same day that GM stole away with the prize. Daimler-Chrysler breezed through without so much as a wild rumor until the day before it was announced.
On the other hand, Eaton is happy to call attention to talks elsewhere.
For months now, he has said things like: 'I know of six separate negotiations going on in the world today,' or 'I believe there will be a deal involving two major companies in Europe within 90 days.'
He likes diverting attention, then slipping off and doing his own thing.
Buying and selling companies is the sharp end of being chief executive. At times like these the top car men earn their money. An entire corporation is distilled in one man's nervous system.
They have plenty of help in the corners, but they step alone into the ring. It is Bernd Pischetsrieder vs. Ferdinand Piech; Louis Schweitzer vs. Jean-Martin Folz; Jac Nasser vs. Jack Smith, et al.
Buying a company comes down to one man's gut instinct. But there are two guts churning at DaimlerChrysler. What if they disagree? Who does Nissan's Yoshikazu Hanawa talk to when he is ready to get down to business?
The two-headed approach may work to D/C's benefit. Ferdinand Piech could have used an alter ego when he bought Rolls-Royce last year. But it seems less than ideal, as Eaton and Schrempp would probably concede.
There is a similar situation at Fiat. Chairman Paolo Fresco and Managing Director Paolo Cantarella must decide jointly whether to bid for Volvo. At both Fiat and D/C, the way the two partners work together on the deals of the moment may determine whether they continue to work together at all.