Seeing Andreas Renschler take over DaimlerChrysler's fledgling Smart Car project, the comparisons to General Motors' Saturn brand are all too tempting.
Renschler is no manufacturing wonk. He's not like someone Toyota dispatches to a sluggish supplier factory to find out why quality is so bad.
That's not Smart's problem and it's not Renschler's background.
Renschler is an organization expert. He is a strategic planner whose skill is nurturing human beings. He understands the magic of teamwork. And he knows how to build a team.
An esprit de corps may be the one secret ingredient that the Smart Micro Compact Car venture is now lacking. And Renschler is the guy to deliver it.
Consider Renschler's history so far. Consider Smart's, and consider Saturn's.
GM committed billions to launching the new Saturn small-car brand a decade ago. It was GM's effort to break with the past and gamble on new technologies - in the factory and in the car.
There were new supplier relationships, new marketing ideas and a new dealer network.
Pundits warned GM it was making a mistake. GM insiders had trouble grasping that Saturn was not merely a new car but a new brand. And GM's own boardroom waffling slowed Saturn's progress.
Now, go back and substitute 'Daimler' for GM and 'Smart' for Saturn and you have roughly the history of Smart.
But there was a big difference at Saturn: Saturn thrived on a team spirit. Literally. Saturn managers and employees understood it, and setbacks often toughened their resolve. Saturn dealers stayed happy, as though under the spell of some new religion, even when sales stumbled. Even Saturn customers basked in the company's 'we're different' culture.
Now consider Smart's plight: The concept has moved from a rule-breaking joint venture with the iconoclastic Swiss watchmaker, SMH Holdings, into a head-to-head battle for small-car buyers with small-car pros like Renault and Ford. Headquartered in Biel, Switzerland, until early this year, the venture's sales bosses now reside in Renningen, Germany.
But regional sales managers report to DaimlerChrysler offices in their countries. The company's engineering and procurement cues come from Daimler central offices in Stuttgart. And yet vehicle production is centered hundreds of miles away in Hambach, France.
Smart has suffered slow sales, management turnover and a sense of dread that Daimler might pull the plug on the venture.
Now consider Renschler's track record.
As CEO of Mercedes-Benz U.S. International Inc., Renschler helped Daimler enter the world sport-utility market. He did it by breaking with Daimler traditions and creating a new automotive culture in Vance, Ala. He had never worked in a manufacturing plant. But he made sure his Alabama 'team' communicated and lived by consensus.
That meant bringing all parties physically together. One suite of offices in Vance houses the project CEO and all his chief lieutenants.
Renschler led managers on wilderness survival games, and he stayed up late at the factory construction site arguing philosophy with his American, Canadian and German appointees. He fostered a tight working relationship that was a synthesis of German, North American and even Japanese business cultures. He gave Daimler a glimpse of what a global company looks like.
Renschler's team-building skills received due notice from his bosses in Stuttgart. For the past year, his job has been to meet D/C managers on both sides of the Atlantic, consider their personalities and skills and determine which of them grasp D/C's direction and are capable of moving the company forward.
This sounds like Saturn again.
Back at GM, when the Saturn factory was up and running, GM began moving up the people who understood what it was all about. The new culture Saturn spawned was needed elsewhere in GM. So it will be at Hambach or Renningen, or wherever Renschler decides to focus the Smart organization. DaimlerChrysler made it clear this year that it is committed to moving the Smart brand forward. That will take more competitive spirit, more factory efficiency and more zeal for teamwork. It will take a truly focused organization to pull that off.
Lindsay Chappell can be reached at (615) 371-6654. His e-mail address is [email protected]