Daimler's Kaellenius Becomes CEO Front-Runner With Expanded Role

  • Mercedes sales chief to oversee group research and development
  • Supervisory board extends CEO Zetsche's contract through 2019

Ola Kaellenius.

Photographer: Martin Leissl/Bloomberg

Daimler AG appointed Ola Kaellenius as head of research and development, effectively anointing the 46-year-old Swede as the front-runner to succeed Dieter Zetsche as chief executive officer of the German automaker. 

Kaellenius, who is currently head of sales at Mercedes-Benz Cars, will succeed Thomas Weber, 61, after he retires at the end of this year, the Stuttgart, Germany-based company said on Tuesday in a statement. Zetsche’s contract was extended through 2019, giving Kaellenius -- a 23-year Daimler veteran -- time to prove himself.

“Research and development are two key fields in the automotive industry for maintaining a lasting top position,” Chairman Manfred Bischoff said in the statement. “Ola Kaellenius has the expertise required for anchoring and further expanding Daimler’s position as technology leader.”

The move puts the former head of the AMG performance unit in prime position to beat out Daimler trucks boss Wolfgang Bernhard and Chief Financial Officer Bodo Uebber to replace Zetsche. The potential orderly handover of power is a marked contrast to the turmoil the company faced 10 years ago when Zetsche was thrust into the top job as Juergen Schrempp’s efforts to build a global auto giant unraveled.

First Non-German

Zetsche, 62, stabilized Daimler by unwinding the ill-fated merger with Chrysler and selling the company’s holding in Airbus’s parent to focus on Mercedes luxury cars and Daimler’s commercial-vehicle business, the world’s biggest. While Zetsche himself was under pressure when Mercedes-Benz dropped to No. 3 in upscale cars behind Audi, he now has the marque on track to pass BMW AG’s namesake brand for the segment’s top spot this year. Daimler’s value has climbed more than 50 percent during Zetsche’s tenure.

As Weber’s successor, Kaellenius can gain experience throughout the group by overseeing development of new Mercedes cars as well as research projects for the entire group. His replacement as sales chief at the cars division will be named in the course of 2016, Daimler said.

If Kaellenius succeeds Zetsche, he would be the first non-German to run the company that traces its history to the invention of the automobile 130 years ago. He would also become part of a generational shift among German car leaders, as the auto industry faces disruptive changes posed by self-driving vehicles, car-sharing services and tighter pollution standards. BMW CEO Harald Krueger was 49 at the time of his transition to the helm in May last year.

Kaellenius emerged as a potential Zetsche successor when he was promoted to Daimler’s management board last year. The executive joined Daimler in 1993 after studying management and finance in Sweden and Switzerland. After stints in Mercedes’s U.S. plant in Alabama, he established a track record in performance cars as head of operations at sports-car maker McLaren Automotive and then running AMG from 2010 to 2013. But unlike past Daimler CEOs, he hasn’t so far spent time in the trucks unit.

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