That question was asked a lot Thursday morning when North America awoke to news that Chrysler group CEO Dieter Zetsche would be leaving at the end of the year to become CEO of parent company DaimlerChrysler AG.
Its the same question many asked when Zetsche arrived in Auburn Hills nearly five years ago. Those who didnt know him from his days at Freightliner or Mercedes-Benz were prepared to dislike him. After all, he was replacing a local executive who had been sacked.
Coming just two years after Daimler-Benz acquired Chrysler, it looked like an occupation force sent from Stuttgart when he arrived with Wolfgang Bernhard right before Christmas 2000.
But Zetsche won them over. He and Bernhard developed a classic American good cop/bad cop relationship with outsiders, starring Bernhard in the role of tough guy. It was Bernhard who attacked Chryslers cost problems, angering the supplier community in the process. It was Zetsche who became the community leader and public face of the company.
Not that Zetsche has been a wimp. Weve had issues with him. But they were resolvable and we resolved them.
Zetsches system worked. Together -- with a little help from Chrysler group employees, suppliers and dealers -- they turned the company around. There are hot products and more profits. Just about everything is working better, thanks to his leadership.
Along the way, Zetsche became a strong voice in the North American industry and the local community. Like most top auto execs, he has been active in local charities. He also has a sense of humor. He didnt do commercials, but he did appear in commerciallike videos for Chryslers dealers in which he deadpanned his lines like a pro.
Because like the Lone Ranger, his work here is finished. And with other companies in need of CEOs with his skills and experience, you couldnt expect Dieter Zetsche to wait around three more years until Juergen Schrempps contract expired.
The time is right.
Five years ago, Zetsche vowed to keep Chrysler a North American company, not just a puppet subsidiary. And he lived up to his word. Zetsche knows this country and appreciates it. He has become an all-American executive.
He even was becoming a fan of local sports teams, like the Detroit Pistons and the Detroit Red Wings, both of which won championships during his U.S. stay. Coincidence?
So it will be interesting to see how many Americans from Auburn Hills (home of the Pistons, by the way) now will have bigger roles in Stuttgart.
You may e-mail Edward Lapham at