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Zetsche’s route to the top was never assured: he graduated as an engineer, working in Daimler-Benz’s research department from 1976, and spent 22 years progressing through the company before taking a board position. Be in no doubt, he’s a car guy through and through, as anyone who has had the opportunity to witness his interrogations on rivals’ stands at motor shows will testify.
There were times when his tenure at the top was by no means assured too. As recently as 2015, eyebrows were raised when his contract was extended by only three years, rather than the anticipated five, because of a succession of profit warnings, relatively slow sales in China and mounting tensions with Germany’s powerful labour groups. The turnaround since that lukewarm vote of confidence has been astonishing.
What’s more, even against that backdrop of uncertainty, Zetsche held his nerve. He saw through some of the firm’s most fundamental changes and radical pivots, from sorting mounting concerns over quality and reliability to pushing through today’s more, shall we say flamboyant styling direction (which, say what you will, has coincided with huge sales growth and kicked the firm’s fuddy-duddy image to the corner), the expansion of AMG, the reinvigoration of potentially fringe aspects of the business (look at the cult status of the G-Wagen today and then ponder how hard Land Rover is finding reinventing the Defender) and more. The list goes on, although the ongoing failure to find a meaningful path for Smart (below) remains among the blemishes.
The personality that underpins all this has always been evident, but has rarely been celebrated to quite the extent it has with Zetsche. Back in 2006, he was deemed to have the charisma and identity to front an ‘Ask Dr Z’ advertising campaign in the US and Canada while running the Chrysler Group (a partnership he subsequently, wisely, oversaw the end of).
No doubt that moustache helped, but the fact that the advertisers believed he was recognisable enough to front such a campaign, physically demonstrating the mating of the best of German know-how and American products, speaks volumes. So too does the fact that he had the force of personality to pull them off. Few, if any, rivals could have done so.
And then there have been the opportunities to speak to him, at motor shows and on launches. At the former, the opportunities were also offered in group situations, better to get the most from his time. Perhaps it helped boost his own charm that these events have always been chaired by his remarkably grumpy PR handler in recent years, but Zetsche’s open, frank demeanour was always a standout feature of the interactions.