Helmut Werner, the former chairman of Mercedes-Benz, never seemed interested or good at corporate politics. He just wanted to do his job.
Yet Werner, who died Feb. 6 at age 67, went up against two of the craftiest infighters in European auto history - Ferdinand Piech and Juergen Schrempp.
He didn't fare well.
In 1987, Volkswagen Chairman Carl Hahn wanted Werner, then CEO of tire maker Continental AG, to succeed Audi chief Wolfgang Habbel, who was retiring.
Werner was intrigued. Heading Audi would put him in line to lead the entire group when Hahn retired. But Piech, who was in charge of Audi engineering, sought Habbel's job. After getting a taste of the rough-and-tumble Piech was capable of, Werner decided to go to Mercedes-Benz instead.
He took over as head of Mercedes' heavy- truck division and was refreshingly candid in saying he expected to command all of Daimler-Benz one day. That was Daimler Chairman Edzard Reuter's plan.
In 1993, Werner took over Mercedes-Benz's passenger-car operations. When Reuter retired as Daimler's chairman in 1995, Schrempp was put in charge of Mercedes' holding company.
Werner had operational authority, but Schrempp was the boss. In 1996, Schrempp created a plan to combine Daimler-Benz and Mercedes-Benz, which meant one of the two CEOs had to go. Werner was no match for Schrempp as a power struggler and soon resigned.
If Helmut Werner had won, the industry would look much different today.
Schrempp was the architect of DaimlerChrysler. Without that merger, the wave of industry consolidation between 1998 and 2000 might not have occurred.
Not only would Daimler and Chrysler probably still be separate, but Mitsubishi Motors likely still would be on its own. Ford may not have been compelled to react to DaimlerChrysler; Volvo could still be independent.
Renault would not have a controlling stake in Nissan had Schrempp not put the Japanese company in play in 1999. And Fiat S.p.A. allied with General Motors in 2000 because DaimlerChrysler was mulling a plan to go after the Italian company.
Werner would almost certainly have been less aggressive about trying to build a global empire out of Daimler-Benz. But he was no flatfoot.
He ran Mercedes-Benz at a crossroads in its history. BMW had passed Mercedes in sales briefly in the early 1990s.
Pushed Alabama factory
Werner reversed the company's long-held belief that Mercedes cars could be produced only in Germany. He pushed through a plan to build a factory in Tuscaloosa, Ala. He also took the brand into several new segments. Under Werner, Mercedes launched plans to build the A-class small car, the M-class SUV, the SLK roadster and the Smart minicar.
He did not disappear after leaving Mercedes-Benz. Werner became chairman of Expo 2000 in Hanover, Germany, sat on several corporate boards and became a principal in Penske Capital Partners, a company formed by close friend Roger Penske to make acquisitions.
Werner also became involved in the European Automotive Hall of Fame established four years ago by Automotive News Europe.
He was a member of the selection committee and was among the moderators at the annual induction ceremonies at the Geneva auto show. He was scheduled to take part next month.
He participated with great enthusiasm in the Hall of Fame. The energy he put into presentations honoring inductees reflected Werner's deep love of the industry.