Fighting through industry ups and downs with Daimler.
Longtime Daimler AG executive Dieter Zetsche has had one of the most versatile and unique careers of any automotive figure in recent decades. In more than 40 years of service to Daimler AG, Zetsche made his mark as an engineer, executive, and even TV spokesperson. Zetsche also confronted considerable challenges; challenges he weathered with hard work and steadfast commitment.
Zetsche was born in Turkey in 1953 while his father was there working as a civil engineer. The family returned to the Frankfurt, Germany, area in 1956. As a young man, Zetsche competed in equestrian vaulting, and worked as a delivery truck driver. He went on to attend the University of Karlsruhe and graduated in 1976 with a degree in Electrical Engineering. He later earned a doctoral degree in engineering from the University of Paderborn in 1982.
In his early 20s, Zetsche was hired as an engineer by Daimler-Benz. In 1981, he was promoted to assistant development manager in the Vehicles Business unit. Upon the company’s 1998 merger with Chrysler, Zetsche was named to the management board, and in 2000, he became President and CEO of Chrysler Group. Zetsche received international acclaim for his work on the turnaround of DaimlerChrysler’s U.S. operations.
In a 2006 ad campaign promoting the availability of Chrysler’s Employee Pricing Plus summer sales program, Zetsche assumed the role of “Dr. Z.” The campaign, “Ask Dr. Z,” was unprecedented, as it included employee pricing for all customers plus zero percent financing for 36 months. These ads communicated for the first time the consumer benefits of both German and American engineering in every Chrysler product. However, the campaign ended abruptly. North American audiences failed to realize that “Dr. Z” was the actual boss and not an actor. Further, too much inventory and low sales began to take priority as the company was facing massive third quarter losses.
When he was named CEO and president of Daimler AG in 2007, Zetsche had the opportunity to flex his engineering prowess. From Daimler’s Stuttgart, Germany, headquarters, he personally led the Mercedes-Benz car division. Engines and high-end electronics were his central focus along with maintaining an emphasis on technical innovation and sleek, forward-thinking designs. Slow sales in China and tensions with Daimler’s labor leaders caused some to be skeptical of Zetsche’s leadership. Record sales and revenue helped the company achieve a turnaround in 2015. Zetsche’s contract was extended to 2019, when he retired. In September 2020, Zetsche turned down the opportunity to chair the company’s supervisory board.
In recent automotive history, few leaders other than Zetsche have had such a long a relationship with a single company. He served in a variety of roles through the company’s multiple iterations and faced the tough circumstances of a shifting industry. Zetsche will always be known as a key player in the history of Daimler-Benz.