The Countdown at DaimlerChrysler

It’s now only 36 hours until DaimlerChrysler Chief Executive Dieter Zetsche faces several thousand shareholders in Berlin, eager to hear him say that Daimler is selling Chrysler. The details can come later, but the automaker’s owners want a clear break with its failed strategy. And I’m betting that Zetsche will not disappoint them.

The automaker’s annual shareholder meetings under former Chief Executive Juergen Schrempp used to be an exercise in frustration. Critics railed for hours against an impassive management and board of supervisors, who knew that large core investors like Deutsche Bank and the Kuwait Investment Office would rubber stamp their agenda. That prompted enraged activist shareholders to dub Daimler the symbol of failed corporate governance in Germany.

But much has changed in the 18 months since Schrempp stepped down. Deutsche Bank has whittled down its stake to 4.36 percent. Kuwait is now Daimler’s largest single shareholder with 7.1 percent, and institutionals own 68 percent of the company. So Zetsche will need to be all ears at the Apr. 4 assembly in the cavernous Berlin trade show auditorium.

Another reason to believe things will move faster than Daimler’s spin-doctors say: Supervisory Board Chairman Hilmar Kopper, who presided over the failed merger with Chrysler, is stepping down. His replacement, Manfred Bischoff, has already started calling for a radical shedding of non-performing assets, according to Automotive News.

Bischoff would be clever to start with a clean slate. The most vociferous shareholders who have tabled a motion to drop Chrysler from the corporate nameplate and revert to Daimler Benz may not carry the day. But this years’ face-off with shareholders is likely to reflect how far DaimlerChrylser has come in listening to its owners.

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