LAS VEGAS — DaimlerChrysler AG Chairman-Elect Dieter Zetsche promises to maintain close ties with Chrysler Group dealers as he bids them farewell during a sentimental and off-beat send-off here.
Zetsche, who relinquished leadership of Chrysler in September, received a standing ovation from the 7,000 dealers and dealer representatives gathered to say “thanks” and “goodbye” to the charismatic executive who engineered the auto maker's dramatic turnaround.
“I won't be a stranger,” Zetsche says.
DaimlerChrysler was reeling when Zetsche was tasked five years ago with reviving Chrysler operations.
He responded with an aggressive cost-cutting campaign that eliminated jobs in North America and a cost-saving plan that pared the product-development budget by $17 billion at a time when Chrysler showrooms were wastelands of tired offerings.
As a result of what Zetsche calls his “more-with-less” strategy, Chrysler has emerged as an industry leader in vehicle design. Consumers have responded, as evidenced by 19 consecutive monthly sales gains through October.
Meanwhile, Chrysler recorded a third-quarter operating profit of $379 million, up from the $265 million surplus it reported during the same period last year.
“We have come a long, long way,” Zetsche tells the dealers. “Don't ever count this company out.”
Though sentimental about Zetsche's departure, dealers expressed confidence in his successor. When Zetsche was parachuted into the top job at Mercedes Car Group two months ago, manufacturing guru Tom LaSorda became president and CEO of Chrysler.
“He's a good man,” says Frank Galeana Jr., of Galeana Chrysler Jeep in Fort Myers, FL.
Dealers here got a sneak peak at Chrysler's product pipeline, and Galeana is encouraged by what LaSorda's leadership portends for Jeep.
But there still are needs to address. “I think we're weak in midsize cars,” says Richard Duffner of Thompson Chrysler in Radford, VA.
The auto maker is gearing up to replace the Dodge Stratus and Chrysler Sebring midsize sedans.
As a token of their appreciation, North American dealers bestowed gifts on Zetsche, including a commissioned portrait once he becomes CEO and chairman of DaimlerChrysler in January.
Zetsche will remain head of Mercedes-Benz, as well, which now faces challenges similar to those that dogged Chrysler five years ago.
In an elaborate theatrical tribute to Zetsche, LaSorda suggests the chairman-elect will need some high-tech gear to meet the challenges of his new assignment.
LaSorda and fellow Chrysler executives load up Zetsche with gadgets worthy of James Bond, including a jet pack to escape the potential wrath of angry Mercedes dealers.
Suddenly, a man strides on stage and confronts Zetsche. “What the hell are you doing with my stuff?” he demands. He is actor Sean Connery, the original movie James Bond.