So next year we will bid farewell, but not goodbye, to Daimler’s extravagantly mustachioed Dieter Zetsche, who will step down as boss of Mercedes-Benz cars and chairman of the board of management. The plan is that, after a required cooling-off period, he’ll return in 2021 to head up the supervisory board.
The switching of a company boss doesn’t always warrant comment, but in Dr Z’s case it certainly does, partly because of the period of success he has overseen and partly because there have been fascinating harder times when he has appeared to cling on rather than thrive. But, most of all, because in his interactions with us, there have been many times when he has demonstrated qualities that take him beyond being a great leader and into the realms of being just a great guy.
If that final sentence jars - how can a corporate boss, driven by targets, growth and profits earning tens of millions a year be “just a great guy”? - then it’s worth spending a few moments delving deeper into some of the standout aspects of his career.
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.