Jürgen Hubbert, the man who modernized Mercedes-Benz, always struck people as one of the least ego-driven big-time auto executives they ever met.
It might have been his selflessness that allowed Hubbert to last 15 years as head of Mercedes-Benz, one of the hottest seats in the car business. The brand is considered a national treasure in Germany, so public scrutiny is intense and unrelenting.
Hubbert fought hard as Mercedes went through the traumatic A-class tip-over crisis in 1997. But he never fought for himself -- only for the car and the company.
Two men were under tremendous pressure after a Swedish car magazine rolled an A class in an "elk test" maneuver: Hubbert and Mercedes' young sales and marketing boss, Dieter Zetsche.
Zetsche had been Mercedes' product development head when the A class was being developed, so he was vulnerable. But Hubbert was ready to take the blame.
"Dieter is a young man with a young family," he told a colleague. "I've had a great career. I'll go."
In the end, neither man had to leave. Hubbert moved swiftly and decisively, taking the engineering and public relations steps needed to save the A class.
Zetsche survived to become CEO of the Chrysler division.
Hubbert, who plunged Mercedes into segments and doubled its worldwide sales, officially stepped down October 1. Eckhard Cordes, 53, who headed the commercial vehicles division, is the new boss of the Mercedes Car Group.
Hubbert joined the company in 1965 as a young engineer and has been in charge of the Mercedes passenger-car business since 1989. Now 65, Hubbert will head DaimlerChrysler's executive automotive committee until April, when he will retire.
He could say 'no'
Hubbert may have been the only man that all-powerful DaimlerChrysler Chairman Jürgen Schrempp ever feared.
"Hubbert was someone who could say 'no' to Schrempp," said a German senior executive. "He earned the money that Schrempp could spend."
Had he wanted to, many believe Hubbert could have become the head of Daimler-Benz.
But Hubbert's ambition had limits. He seemed happy as long as he was designing, manufacturing and selling Mercedes-Benz cars.
Tanned, silver-haired, aristocratic in appearance and manner, Hubbert did things his predecessors at Mercedes vowed they would never do -- such as build a plant in the US. He also produced the M class SUV, the A class and oversaw the launch of both the Smart microcar and Maybach super-luxury brands.
He expanded the Mercedes product line far beyond what it was when he took over from Werner Niefer. Under Hubbert, the Mercedes vehicle range has grown from five vehicles to 18.
When he took over in 1989, he inherited an overengineered S-class sedan developed under previous management. The car was too big, too heavy, too complex, and Hubbert knew it. He also said it. He was the most candid car executive in Europe.
The S class sold, but it looked silly compared with its sleek BMW 7-series rival. Hubbert spent his career steering Mercedes from the legacy of that S class.
Voice of reason
"He brought to Mercedes a gentlemanly style of behavior as a competitor," said former BMW CEO Eberhard von Kuenheim. "He accepted that it was his duty to be a competitor, but it was on a very friendly basis."
Many believe Hubbert saved the merger of Daimler-Benz and Chrysler Corp. There was a tremendous amount of German-American culture clash in the early days of DaimlerChrysler, but no one at the Chrysler group clashed with Hubbert. He was everyone's colleague, a fixed point for both sides, a voice of reason.
He is not one to talk about himself. His most famous personal revelation: He has collected more than 3,000 teddy bears. He still has his first white Steiff teddy bear, one of the few things that survived the bombings of his hometown during World War II.
Hubbert hit some rough patches near the end of his career. The product proliferation he championed created problems. The engineering forces were spread too thin and quality lapsed.
Before his departure, Hubbert declared that quality was the company's top priority, and he said Mercedes-Benz would sacrifice profits to correct problems. At last month's Paris auto show, Hubbert admitted that the first-generation M class wasn't as true a Mercedes as the second would be.
This year, Hubbert was bothered by the bull-in-a-china-shop approach of his designated successor, former Chrysler COO Wolfgang Bernhard. Two days before Bernhard was due to take the job on May 1, it was yanked from him.
Hubbert's public goodbyes came at the Paris auto show. With tears in his eyes, Hubbert said farewell at the company's press conference simply by noting this would be his last auto show.
He once confided that he never wanted his children to do what he did, to have so much responsibility -- the job was too demanding, required too much of him. Yet he did it longer and better than anyone.
Richard Johnson and Diana T. Kurylko helped create Automotive News Europe. You may e-mail them at and .