Dieter Zetsche has been head of Daimler, the parent company of Mercedes Benz, since 2006. That’s a long time for a chief executive in the automotive business. The possessor of the most magnificent mustache in motordom will step down on May 22, 2019 after the company’s annual shareholders’ meeting. During his tenure, Zetsche guided Mercedes to the top of the sales charts for premium cars in 2016, overtaking rivals BMW and Audi in the process.
His successor is Ola Kaellenius, a Swede whose background is in finance and accounting, according to Reuters. He also has a graduate degree from the Stockholm School of Economics. He currently serves as R&D head for the Daimler Group and for Mercedes Benz automobiles. When he takes over next May, it will mark the first time in the company’s 132-year history that its top leader is someone who is not a native German and who does not have a background in mechanical engineering.
Zetsche is scheduled to replace Manfred Bischoff as chairman of the company’s supervisory board in 2021. “With Dieter Zetsche’s intended appointment as Chairman of the Supervisory Board, we are ensuring continuity for the sustained success of Daimler AG,” Bischoff said in a recent statement.“In Ola Kaellenius, we are appointing a recognized, internationally experienced and successful Daimler executive.”
His ascent up the corporate ladder may have something to do with why Mercedes decide to unveil its EQC, the company’s first all electric SUV, in Sweden last month rather than in Germany.
Kaellenius has been working diligently to infuse Silicon Valley culture into the somewhat stodgy Daimler management style. A frequent attendee at tech conferences, he convinced Zetsche to empower lower level employees to think freely about the future, even if their ideas aren’t always tied to a clear profit opportunity for the company. Previously, only concepts accompanied by perfect “specification sheet” were essential in order to get noticed by upper management.
Other executives who lack the usual background as mechanical engineers are also moving up in the company. Wilko Stark, current head of strategy and planning at Daimler, will become head of procurement on October 1. His predecessor, Markus Schaefer, has been instrumental in bringing the company’s many factories together in a single digital platform. He will take over as head of R&D next May.
Sajjad Khan is a software development expert who is the current head of the company’s digital vehicle & mobility section. He will take over management of Daimler’s connected autonomous shared electric (CASE) and electric vehicle architecture sections.
The world of auto manufacturing is changing rapidly. Elon Musk and Tesla have sparked many of those changes, but many Chinese companies like Byton and Nio are promising to bring cars that are as much computers as they are vehicles to market soon.
Dieter Zetsche will still be in the background as head of the management board, but the ranks of Daimler executives with one foot in the digital world and the other in manufacturing will continue to grow. The fact that Daimler will soon be led by a person who is not a dyed in the wool mechanical engineer — in a nation where engineers are revered as gods — is proof that the zero emissions transportation revolution is happening, despite opposition from fossil fuel industries, despite political headwinds, and despite anti-EV bombast from the mainstream press.
The future envisioned by Elon Musk a decade ago is coming, and it will arrive sooner than anyone dared hope just a few years ago. Kudos to Daimler for restructuring its management team around what will be rather than what once was.
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