DETROIT - Chairman Robert Eaton's departure from DaimlerChrysler AG will leave just four Americans among the 13 members of the German company's board of management.
He will step down March 31, 16 months after DaimlerBenz AG acquired Chrysler Corp.
'The danger at the moment is that the move may be seen as a destabilizing event,' said Garel Rhys, director of the Center for Automotive Industry Research at Cardiff University Business School in the United Kingdom. 'The main asset in the company is the human capital. They're very concerned indeed at the steady drip of people from the company.'
Eaton, 59, said he made his decision because 'the merger is over.'
'We're, of course, under no delusions: There's still a lot of work to do,' Eaton said in announcing his retirement. But 'we have disbanded our post-merger team. Its job is over, and I think mine is as well.'
Several top executives left the company after the merger, including Tom Stallkamp, who was head of the DaimlerChrysler operations in Auburn Hills, Mich.
DaimlerChrysler has downplayed the significance of the departures, saying it has a wealth of talent.
Still, industry analysts and insiders say the departures were a result of uncertainty and low morale after the acquisition of Chrysler by Daimler-Benz.
Eaton last week defended his role in forging the multinational automaker.
'We recognized (going into merger talks) that we weren't going to be able to grow as a single company internationally at the rate that we felt was necessary,' he said. 'And this was a tremendous opportunity for Chrysler.'
A DaimlerChrysler manager in Stuttgart said that Juergen Schrempp, who, like Eaton, is DaimlerChrysler AG's chairman, did not push Eaton to retire. Nevertheless, Eaton's announcement sweeps aside a cloud of uncertainty. Since the merger, Eaton said he would stay for three years or until the merger was complete. The board is now able to focus exclusively on the future of the company, the manager said.
Jim Holden, a member of the management board and president of the Chrysler group, will be the Chrysler-Plymouth-Dodge-Jeep 'identification figure' in Stuttgart, the manager said.
Holden takes his place as 'Mr. Chrysler' alongside 'Mr. Mercedes,' Juergen Hubbert, head of Mercedes-Benz passenger cars.
The Auburn Hills operations will retain significant autonomy, said David Cole, director of the Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation at the University of Michigan.
Chrysler is 'making more profit on each vehicle they sell than anyone else,' Cole said. 'They've agreed to let Chrysler be Chrysler and Mercedes be Mercedes. Eaton doesn't have to stay to defend the Chrysler jewels.'
Eaton joined Chrysler Corp. in 1992 as vice chairman and COO. He worked 29 years for General Motors before that.
He told Schrempp of his decision about a week before telling the public. Eaton made an official announcement to the board of management Tuesday, Jan. 25.
Eaton said he plans to spend his time hunting, fishing and playing golf, and said a trip to the Chrysler Bob Hope golf tournament in Palm Springs, Calif., after the Detroit auto show this month triggered his decision to retire:
'I played a little golf and decided, hey, that was kind of fun.'