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Zetsche heads Chrysler product revival

October 10, 2004|by JASON STEIN/Wheelbase Communications

The message came out of nowhere with a voice so unusual and a language so foreign that Chrysler Group CEO Dieter Zetsche must have wondered how he ever got hooked up with someone named Snoop Dogg anyway.

Or, "Snoppy Doggy Dogg," as Zetsche later remembered it.

It was in June of this year that Snoop Dogg, a Los Angeles, Calif., rap-music star, left a voice-mail message for Zetsche at DaimlerChrysler's Los Angeles business center.

"What I gotta' do to get that brand new 300 up outta' you?" Snoop said in the message to Zetsche, whose first language is German.

He then suggested Zetsche should, "get back in contact with my nephew so he can make it happen, then it's official like a referee with a whistle. If you want this car to blow, give it to me."

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Translation: just four years into his reign at DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler Group, Zetsche's team is attracting the attention of rappers, musicians, actors and everyone else who had never considered Chrysler in their portfolio of products.

Celebrities want his hot new 300 sedan. Guys want his Hemi engine in their Dodge Magnum wagons and Ram trucks. Families want his minivan with Stow 'n Go seats.

It's quite a turnaround story.

"It's good but we are nowhere near where we want to be," Zetsche said during a recent interview near Santa Barbara, Calif., where Jeep was launching an all-new Grand Cherokee. "The good news is, there is more to come."

With nine new products this year, Zetsche, 51, has become the comeback kid for Chrysler.

His vehicles are different and they're selling.

"That's the key, isn't it?" he says as a smile forces his trademark bushy mustache higher on his face.

A car guy since he worked on Volkswagens as a teenager growing up in Germany, Zetsche is perfect for the American market, and the American media.

He is funny, engaging, approachable, optimistic and intelligent. Born May 5, 1953 in Istanbul, Turkey, and educated in Frankfurt, Germany, as an engineer, he began in the research department of then Daimler-Benz AG in 1976 and became assistant to the development manager in the commercial-vehicles unit in 1981.

It began a wild ride through the company ranks that would take him into nine different positions in 12 years.

In 1989, two years after heading up the development department as the chief engineer of Mercedes in Brazil, he was named the president of Mercedes-Benz Argentina.

But what he would walk into at Chrysler would be his greatest challenge.

Before the move, Zetsche was leading DaimlerChrysler AG's commercial vehicle business. A 10-minute meeting at just before 9 a.m. in September 2000 changed everything.

DaimlerChrysler AG Chairman Juergen Schrempp called Zetsche aside and asked him to clean up the U.S.-based Chrysler group, a unit staggered by enormous losses.

"From a gut feel, I knew what I would do," Zetsche once told Ward's, an industry Web site.

He began the turnaround, the first German executive to head Chrysler just two years to the day that it was merged with DaimlerBenz AG.

After Chrysler lost nearly $2 billion in 2001, Zetsche got tough. He cut jobs, worked out labor issues with the union, reduced output, put price pressure on suppliers, improved dealer relations and got the product on track.

This year, Chrysler has gained market share and made money. Zetsche hopes to increase sales by 35 percent over the next five years.

"At the end of the day, this business is not rocket science. We had to face the music and we did that. Now we want to push even higher."

Chrysler's doing it in style, reintroducing rear-wheel-drive cars, sporty station wagons, PT Cruiser convertibles and super cars.

Super cars?

Chrysler recently invited eight journalists from around the world to the race track at Laguna Seca, near Monterey, Calif., to drive Chrysler's new ME Four Twelve super car, an exotic prototype capable of hitting 60 mph in a scant three seconds.

Zetsche even got behind the wheel.

For a guy who operates at a whirlwind pace - multiple countries, little sleep, constant focus - it was the first time he was slowed this year.

"My lap time on the track was not so good," he said. "They put a minivan in front of me to take pictures and so I could not drive more than 35 miles per hour.

"But it was still thrilling."

It's a good bet it might get even better.

Jason Stein is a feature writer with Wheelbase Communications. He can be reached on the Web at www.wheelbase.ws/mailbag.html.

© 2004, Wheelbase Communications

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