The fall of Mercedes-Benz USA boss Ernst Lieb amid a "zero tolerance" crackdown on ethics violations at Daimler AG stunned many U.S. dealers, who liked the 56-year-old German and raved about the job he was doing. Lieb was fired last week, ending a five-year run as CEO during which he bolstered the U.S. sales arm and enjoyed the backing of dealers -- and, until last week, his bosses in Stuttgart.
Daimler officials made no public comment on the reasons for Lieb's dismissal, and Lieb could not be reached for comment.
But a company source in Germany said Lieb was dismissed for using company money for private expenses -- infractions that came to light as part of a companywide effort to root out corruption after Daimler's global bribery scandal was settled last year.
"Things that people did in the past are no longer tolerated," said a company insider in Germany. The source said several other Daimler executives have been discharged in the past years, but Lieb was the only one in the United States. He said no other dismissals are expected at Mercedes-Benz USA.
Another company source confirmed a published report that said Lieb was accused of charging to the company a personal trip to Australia.
Herbert Werner, 56, vice president of finance at Mercedes-Benz USA and the only German on the U.S. executive team, was named interim CEO. Late last week a Daimler source said a replacement would be announced within a "few days."
Under Lieb, Mercedes had nearly closed the sales gap with rival BMW in the United States. In 2007, BMW outsold Mercedes by about 40,000 units. Last year, BMW led by 3,728. Through September, Mercedes trailed BMW by about 7,500 units, with sales of 170,058 vehicles. The totals exclude Mercedes' Sprinter commercial vehicle.
Some dealers say they were shocked by Lieb's departure.
"He was the best thing that happened to Mercedes-Benz," said Ray Catena, CEO of the Ray Catena Auto Group, which owns 14 luxury dealerships in New York and New Jersey. "He brought life into Mercedes and built up a good organization and kept things going great."
Lieb succeeded in pushing through a controversial facilities improvement program for Mercedes stores. The company had long proposed new standards, but Lieb got most dealers to accept the brand's Autohaus program -- even though not all dealers were pleased.
About 300 of the 355 Mercedes-Benz dealerships in the United States have adopted the standards or built new stores, spending a combined $1.4 billion since 2008.