His mustache might be a few decades out of date, but that doesn’t stop Dieter Zetsche from being one of Germany’s most hip and celebrated executives. Wherever he goes, people line up to take selfies with the 64-year-old engineer, who has led Daimler, the maker of Mercedes-Benz cars, since 2006. At public events he often appears in jeans, wearing sneakers instead of black leather shoes. Mr. Zetsche is Mr. Laid-Back, who has turned a battered brand into a world-beater.
Mr. Zetsche, known as “Dr. Z” in the US, has overcome Daimler’s past mishaps, including costly ventures into aerospace production and the takeover of Chrysler. He made Daimler sell the US carmaker in 2007 for a fraction of the purchase price, losing around $26 billion, according to one calculation. He then focused the company on renewing its models and controlling costs, laying the foundation for today’s enviable successes.
In 2016, the Stuttgart-based company overtook arch rival BMW as the world’s largest maker of luxury cars. Mercedes factories are working at full capacity, delivering sturdy G-Class SUVs to Arnold Schwarzenegger, slick C-Class coupes to China’s nouveau riche and nearly half a million semi-trailers and buses to truckers around the globe. Last year saw record revenues of €164 billion ($202 billion), record dividends (€3.65 per share), spectacular profits (€10.9 billion) and booming sales (2.4 million vehicles worldwide). At his zenith in 2017, Mr. Zetsche took home €8.6 million in salary and was able to award every single employee a bonus of €5,700. He’s working out plans to turn Daimler into a holding company and has heavily invested in ride-hailing and car-sharing apps to stave off the rise of Uber.