Former Exec to Reunite With Chrysler

by : Anthony Fontanelle



A familiar face will reunite with the Chrysler Group and he will be assisting Tom LaSorda, who remains as the automaker's chief executive officer but will also be the president in the new organization after the sale of the company is perfected.

Wolfgang Bernhard, 46, a senior adviser to Cerberus Capital Management LP and talented former top Chrysler executive, will return to the Auburn Hills automaker as the chairman of its board, the Detroit News reported last Friday.

After leaving Chrysler, Bernhard was subsequently hired by Volkswagen AG's then-CEO Bernd Pischetsrieder. But Bernhard left VW in January. Still on good terms with Zetsche, Bernhard was retained by Cerberus, which was then drafting its bid for the ailing American luxury division of DaimlerChrysler AG.

Ever since Daimler's announcement of Chrysler's sale to Cerberus, executives of the private-equity firm said that LaSorda would remain as CEO. However, Bernhard's role was less apparent. As an adviser to Cerberus, he is influencing decisions in Auburn Hills, where he has an office. But he keeps a low profile, The News continued.

After three years, Bernhard's formal return would likely strengthen Chrysler employees who recall the German executive as a dashing and dynamic figure. That would also mean a big comeback for Bernhard, who lost two prestigious jobs in a span of four years after fierce boardroom struggles.

"This is good news for Chrysler," said Daniel Gorrell, the president of AutoStratagem, a research and consulting firm in Tustin, Calif. "He'll interject a sense of product urgency that Chrysler has been lacking, and product is what Chrysler lives and dies on."

Additionally, dealers are excited about Bernhard's return. "We need somebody that's strong," said Alan Helfman, the vice president of River Oaks Chrysler Jeep in Houston. "If you've ever been in a room with Wolfgang, vitality just spills out all around him."

Daimler's spokesman declined to comment on Bernhard's appointment, which was first reported by the German magazine Manager-magazin.de. "There is no such plan at this time," spokesman Peter Duda said Thursday.

Cerberus Chairman John Snow, meanwhile, said that the private-equity firm had been working on the structure of the board but refused to go into details of potential members. But sources familiar with the situation said that there will be a board for the Auburn Hills automaker at the holding-company level, and two boards for the Chrysler auto and financial services businesses. But sources said that it was not clear whether Bernhard would head the automotive or holding-company board but he is expected to be the top director.

The private equity firm will be acquiring 80.1 percent of Chrysler for 7.4 billion and the rest of the shares will be retained by Chrysler's German parent. The deal is expected to close in the second week of August.

Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche said last Wednesday that he still expected the deal to close on schedule, sometime during the third quarter, despite recent difficulties in arranging some of the financing for Chrysler because of bond market jitters. Zetsche, the former CEO of Chrysler, and Bernhard, its former chief operating officer, arrived in Auburn Hills together in November 2000 to fix the condition of the American automaker.

Manager-magazin.de said that Bernhard's role in the future Chrysler company has been the source of speculation. Gerald Meyers, a former chairman of the AMC automaker, said that he would not be surprised if Bernhard were appointed chairman of the board. Whether Bernhard will be tasked to talk face-to-face to or dealers, or run the entire show, nobody knows just yet. "He is either going to be the force behind the scenes or out front clearly. There's nothing passive about Wolfgang," Meyers noted.