Exit Interview: A Showman's Parting Shot

When Dieter Zetsche arrived at Chrysler five years ago, Detroit viewed him with deep suspicion. With Chrysler sinking fast after its messy merger with Daimler-Benz, the mustached former Mercedes exec was cast as a storm trooper coming to strip America's No. 3 automaker of its swagger. Instead, Zetsche pumped up Chrysler's American attitude with brash cars like the 300C. And he re-engineered Chrysler into Detroit's only moneymaker. Eventually, Motown embraced him. Bill Ford even tried to hire him.

Now as he heads back to Germany to run DaimlerChrysler, Zetsche has one piece of unfinished business: he'd like to distance Chrysler from Detroit. For starters, he wants to banish the term "Big Three" because it connects Chrysler with its money-losing crosstown rivals. Chrysler, after all, is gaining market share--not ceding it to the Japanese like GM and Ford. "Customers want to be associated with winners, not losers," he says. "If the Big Three is synonymous with a pack of losers, it is not good for us."

And Zetsche knows something about image. To sell Chrysler's cars, he became Detroit's ultimate showman. He played the fool in countless car-show skits (hapless sitcom dad, slack-jawed Hemi guy, beer-throwing Detroit Pistons fan). And when Snoop Dogg left a message on Zetsche's answering machine asking for a 300C, Zetsche responded to the person he called "Snoopy Doggy Dog" by going on a Detroit radio station to declare "fo' shizzle" in his heavy German accent. But he's backed up the Dogg and pony show with beefy new cars that capture the essence of American exuberance--and managed to sell them without the discounts most Detroit metal requires.

That's the biggest reason he doesn't want Chrysler associated with Detroit anymore. Chrysler can make more money if buyers don't expect it to automatically match every GM deal of the month. Eventually, he wants all of Chrysler's cars to stand apart from the crowd, but for now, all this talk on Wall Street of a possible GM bankruptcy only "taints'' Chrysler more, he says. He reasons that while consumers might be willing to buy a ticket on a bankrupt airline, they will steer clear of all of Detroit's durable goods if GM files for Chapter 11. "It's very important for all of us that [GM CEO] Rick [Wagoner] turns GM around,'' says Zetsche. "I definitely think he will."

Chrysler wouldn't be suffering guilt by association if Zetsche's original plan had succeeded. "We were working toward separating from the Big Three from the day I arrived," he says. At one point, Zetsche even rolled out a big ad campaign trumpeting the Chrysler-Benz brotherhood. But it launched just before September 11 and disappeared without a trace.

Now, Zetsche has another turnaround to engineer back in Germany. Mercedes has suffered its own fall from grace thanks to quality glitches and marketing miscues. Don't bet against him. After years of infighting at DaimlerChrysler, the troubled transatlantic marriage might finally come together with Zetsche's ascent. "I'm a credible broker," he says. "I'm seen within Mercedes as a Mercedes guy, and at Chrysler as a Chrysler guy." But the one problem that still confounds him: you can take Chrysler's ownership out of Detroit, but you can't easily take Motown out of Chrysler.