The Ride of His Life?

March 3, 2006
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With a twinkle in his eyes and a grin spreading out beneath his bushy moustache, DaimlerChrysler's Dieter Zetsche isn't your typical CEO. Let's face it, can you imagine GM's Rick Wagoner, Renault/Nissan's Carlos Ghosn, or Honda Takeo Fukui starring in a comic take-off on the TV game show "Jeopardy"? In the video, shown to dealers and journalists, Zetsche proved adept at translating Snoop Dogg's rap lyrics, winding up covered in bling for his troubles. While in Detroit, as Chrysler CEO, Zetsche proved incredibly game for the stunts dreamed up by his stand-up comic/PR chief, Jason Vines. And now, back in Germany as CEO of DaimlerChrysler, Zetsche is still going along for the ride - quite literally - as he demonstrated at this year's Geneva Motor Show.

Most of us journalists were still struggling to open our eyes for the first of 41 news conferences scheduled for the show's opening press day, when suddenly, Zetsche rolled onto the stage, not in a Mercedes-Benz, but on a bicycle. He circled around a few times, then vanished behind the curtains. If anyone was wondering how his new title would change Zetsche, that little vignette likely ended all doubts. This is not the same, pompously full-of-his-Teutonic-self CEO that the world knew with Juergen Schrempp. Oh, let's not be fooled by the PR fluff. Zetsche can be deadly serious when it's time to get down to business. But he also understands the light and frothy side, too, and can clearly get in on the gag.

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To make things a bit easier for journalists, the Geneva show is organized into group news conferences, the first batch made up of Smart, AMG, Mercedes, and finally, Chrysler. So when the Benz brouhaha wrapped up, another figure pedaled onto the stage. Zetsche and his replacement at Chrysler, CEO Tom LaSorda, are the proverbial odd couple. But LaSorda can also enjoy a few laughs at his own expense. So as he rode up on the front seat of a bicycle built for two, Zetsche jumped onto the back.

At the Chrysler stand, it was LaSorda's show. And after a series of painful pains, he helped pull the wraps off the automaker's Dodge Hornet concept vehicle. All the while, Zetsche hovered in the background, a broad smile only partially concealed by his big moustache. But should he have been there at all, asked one of my colleagues? Isn't it time to let LaSorda run his own show? Reasonable, perhaps, but if anything, Zetsche's presence underscored the shift in relationship between German parent and American subsidiary. Despite the original claims, the DaimlerChrysler deal was never a true merger of equals. The two sides saw each other with more disdain than appreciation. Since Zetsche's return to Germany, however, he has firmly planted the Chrysler flag at DCX headquarters. Insiders tell there's more real cooperation between the two brands than at any time since the deal was finalized, more than six years ago. So there's no reason to backpedal. If LaSorda and Zetsche can share a laugh with the media, all the better. At least they're moving in the right direction.

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