“Dieter,” a woman calls out as Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche is swallowed by a group of people after stepping down from the stage. “Dieter, I made a bet with my boss that I could get a picture with you,” the woman says. Mr. Zetsche has just finished a public debate in central Frankfurt, he’s running late, and his entourage wants him to keep moving. But he turns to the lady with the camera and gives her a broad smile. Dieter Zetsche doesn’t just run Mercedes, one of the world’s best-regarded premium carmakers. He’s a celebrity, too.
But Mr Zetsche must be careful not to lose his luster. Two weeks ago, state prosecutors from Stuttgart raided 11 Daimler sites in the course of an investigation into possible fraud and false advertising. They suspect Daimler may have manipulated diesel emissions data – much like Volkswagen did, with catastrophic effect for its balance sheet. Investigators so far have focused on rank-and-file employees at Daimler, not its top executives. In January 2016, Mr. Zetsche told the “Welt am Sonntag” newspaper: “No one committed fraud at our company, no emissions data have been tampered with at our company.” But how long until Mr. Zetsche’s composure cracks?
In the United States, Daimler is still being scrutinized by the Department of Justice regarding its certification of exhaust emissions. More than a year after the inquiry began, Daimler recently suspended certifying diesel cars there, blaming a surge in administrative costs. But would Mr. Zetsche himself smile and say that is reason enough to give up business in one of Daimler’s biggest markets? Surely not.