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A file photo Ola Kallenius (right) with Daimler Chairman Dieter Zetsche . Photo: AP
A file photo Ola Kallenius (right) with Daimler Chairman Dieter Zetsche . Photo: AP

Daimler names first non-German CEO at end of Dieter Zetsche era

Ola Kallenius to replace CEO Dieter Zetsche in 2019

Munich: Daimler AG accelerated a management transition, naming development head Ola Kallenius to replace Chief Executive Officer Dieter Zetsche ahead of schedule as the German carmaker confronts jarring changes in the automotive industry.

Kallenius, the first non-German to take the helm of Daimler, will become CEO in 2019, Daimler said Wednesday in a statement. The 49-year-old Swede was already the heir apparent to long-serving Zetsche, 65, who has faced increasing headwinds this year with the adoption of new emissions tests, a German probe into Mercedes diesel engines and growing trade barriers between key sales regions.

“In Ola Kallenius, we are appointing a recognized, internationally experienced and successful Daimler executive," said Chairman Manfred Bischoff, who’ll be replaced by Zetsche in 2021 following a two-year cooling-off period. “Dieter Zetsche has played a key role in shaping Daimler and has ensured its strategically outstanding positioning for the mobility of the future."

Daimler shares fell as much as 2.4% in Frankfurt.

The transition at the top comes at a critical time for the world’s biggest luxury carmaker as well as commercial vehicle producer. Daimler in June was first among global auto producers to cut annual targets, faced with unpredictable fallout from trade tensions and pricing pressures on top of unprecedented spending on electric vehicles.

The company has also been working on an overhaul that will split Daimler into three separate units -- cars, trucks and mobility services. The new structure is meant to give the CEO more flexibility to make decisions.

“In view of the challenges presented by the transformation of the automotive industry, the supervisory board intends to prepare a suitable succession at an early stage," the company said.

Mercedes-Benz took the luxury sales lead from BMW in 2016, but Daimler has also come under scrutiny over how it tweaked diesel-engine setups to meet emissions regulations, sparking investigations in the US and Germany.

Kallenius “seems like a logical solution" after successfully holding key management positions, said Sven Diermeier, a Frankfurt analyst at Independent Research GmbH.

Daimler is betting on a long-serving employee who has risen through the ranks to the top job. He previously headed sales for the core Mercedes-Benz cars division and led its AMG performance cars unit. His appointment as development chief at the end of 2016 put him ahead in the race to replace Zetsche, prompting then Daimler trucks head Wolfgang Bernhard to leave.

Kallenius joined Daimler in 1993 after studying management and finance in Sweden and Switzerland. After stints in Mercedes’s US plant in Alabama, he developed a track record in performance cars, heading operations at McLaren Automotive and then running Mercedes’s performance division AMG from 2010 to 2013.

Unlike past Daimler CEOs, Kallenius hasn’t spent time in the trucks unit. The Stuttgart-based manufacturer’s planned restructuring may pave the way for a partial listing of the division.

“Kallenius can certainly ‘sell’ a new era better than alternative candidates could have," said Juergen Pieper, a Frankfurt-based analyst at Bankhaus Metzler. The longstanding claim across the German auto industry that the CEO always has to be a engineer is “too simple in these revolutionary times with so many technological challenges," he said.

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