Daimler Trucks Chief Unexpectedly Steps Down

Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg News

Daimler's trucks chief Wolfgang Bernhard, once seen as a candidate to succeed CEO Dieter Zetsche, has stepped down a year before his contract was due to run out, the German carmaker said Feb. 10.

Bernhard's restructuring efforts have angered powerful labor leaders, who hampered his progress at Daimler until he was too old to be considered for the top job, according to sources familiar with the matter.

Daimler said in a statement that Bernhard was leaving at his own request for personal reasons and was released from his duties immediately. It did not say what he would do next but added that CEO Zetsche would take over his duties at Daimler Trucks and Buses.

Daimler's 20-member supervisory board met on Feb. 10 to discuss Bernhard and a possible contract extension, a source had told Reuters earlier, but Bernhard instead asked to leave.

Bernhard began working at Daimler in 1994 and moved through the ranks to become head of Mercedes-Benz Vans, board member for production for Mercedes-Benz Cars and eventually head of trucks.

But last year, Daimler extended the contract of CEO Zetsche by three years, a move that effectively ruled out 56-year-old as a successor, as the company would prefer a candidate likely to stay at the helm for many years.

A year ago, Daimler also promoted Ola Kaellenius, a 47-year-old Swede, to head up research and development, a move company insiders say makes him a natural heir to Zetsche.

Daimler on Feb. 10 extended Kaellenius' contract until Dec. 31, 2022.

Bernhard also did a stint as chief operating officer at Chrysler, a U.S. brand Daimler since has sold off, and that experience might make him a contender to succeed Fiat Chrysler boss Sergio Marchionne when he retires in 2019.

"If he is leaving Daimler, he must have opportunities elsewhere to become chief executive somewhere else, and at Fiat Chrysler, a job is freeing up soon," said MainFirst analyst Daniel Schwarz.

"Fiat needs a strong personality at the top, so it could be a good match."

Separately, members of Volkswagen's board of directors were meeting on Feb. 10 to review progress made by VW brand chief Herbert Diess with his restructuring efforts, sources told Reuters.

Volkswagen declined to comment.

Diess, who has been tipped as a future CEO of the Volkswagen group, also has clashed with powerful labor leaders. Earlier this week, Volkswagen labor boss Bernd Osterloh accused Diess of undermining a jointly agreed turnaround plan.

"Neither of them [Bernard nor Diess] have been given the time to harvest the fruits of restructuring. To a large extent, that has to do with co-determination," Evercore ISI analyst Arndt Ellinghorst said, referring to the policy at large German companies of appointing labor representatives to the board of directors, giving them a say in strategy.

Reporting by Ilona Wissenbach, Andreas Cremer, Jan Schwartz and Edward Taylor