Longtime Daimler Leader to Step Down as Industry Faces Radical Change

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One of the auto industry’s giants will soon leave as head of Daimler and as the chief of its Mercedes-Benz division, often considered the preeminent global manufacturer of luxury cars. Dieter Zetsche departs as the industry has started to be upended by electric vehicles and self-driving cars. Like all of its competition, Daimler’s future has become uncertain because of these revolutionary developments.

Zetsche has been chairman of the board of management of Daimler and head of Mercedes-Benz since 2006, which makes him among the longest-serving chief executives in the entire car industry. Mercedes has solidified its position in the United States and Europe over that period. It has also become a major player in the Chinese market, the world’s largest.

Zetsche will be replaced by Ola Källenius. He has been head of Group Research and Mercedes-Benz cars development and a member of the board of management. The transition will happen at the annual shareholders meeting in 2019. Zetsche will become chairman of the supervisory board in 2021.

Mercedes not only has to contend with German global luxury car companies BMW and Audi, a division of Volkswagen. Toyota Motor Corp. (NYSE: TM) has been successful with its luxury Lexus brand, and most other large manufacturers have luxury divisions of their own. And Mercedes has to also contend with Tesla Inc. (NASDAQ: TSLA), the most visible player in the high-end electric car business.

While Mercedes has set ambitious electric and autonomous car plans of its own, its only competition does not come from other manufacturers. Many huge tech companies have initiatives. Among the most advanced is Alphabet Inc.’s (NASDAQ: GOOGL) Waymo autonomous car operation. Other tech companies may not be building cars, but many, both large and small, are creating hardware and software components and distributing them via partnerships with the largest manufacturers.

Zetsche may have reached the age at which he needs to retire from day-to-day management. However, he leaves Daimler and Mercedes with a new leader who is untested.