Fighting through industry ups and downs with Daimler
Longtime Daimler AG executive Dieter Zetsche is one of the world’s few automotive figures whose face is immediately recognizable. He also bears one of the most versatile and unique careers of any automotive figure in recent decades, having made his mark as an engineer, executive, and even TV spokesperson. In more than four decades with the Daimler family, Zetsche has confronted considerable challenges, which he’s weathered with hard work and a steadfast commitment to the brand.
Zetsche was a young engineer in his early twenties when first hired by Daimler-Benz in 1976. He was promoted to Assistant Development Manager in the Vehicles Business unit in 1981, and recruited to the Board of Management in 1998 upon the company’s merger with Chrysler. But it was in 2000, when he became President and CEO of Chrysler Group, that Zetsche achieved international prominence. He won acclaim for overseeing a turnaround of DaimlerChrysler’s US operations between 2000 and 2005; and then, in 2006, he became the face of the company, assuming the persona of Dr. Z for an ad campaign promoting Chrysler’s Employee Pricing Plus program. The campaign, “Ask Dr. Z”, launched on television, radio, print, and online and was aggressively marketed, making Zetsche something of a celebrity in the US and Canada. However, the campaign was brought to an early end when North American audiences failed to realize he was the actual boss and not an actor, and the company experienced a loss in market share.
Becoming CEO and president of Daimler AG in 2007, Zetsche had the opportunity to flex his engineering muscle once again. Working out of Daimler’s Stuttgart headquarters, he was personally in charge of the Mercedes-Benz car division. Motors and high-end electronics were central focuses under his command, though there was also an emphasis on technical innovation and sleek, forward-thinking designs. Once again Zetsche faced ups and downs. In 2012 and 2013, slow sales in China and tensions with Daimler’s labor leaders made some skeptical of him; however, when 2015 proved a record year for car sales and revenue, Zetsche’s contract was quickly extended to 2019. Daimler AG announced in September 2018 that Zetsche would step down as CEO, but it is expected that he will return as chairman of Daimler’s supervisory board in 2021.
Few leaders in recent automotive history have had as long a relationship with a single company as Dieter Zetsche has had with Daimler AG. Serving in a variety of roles through the company’s multiple iterations and mergers, facing the tough circumstances of a shifting industry, Zetsche is a key player in the history of Daimler-Benz.