Swept away by the story of the decade
Bradford Wernle reflects on DaimlerChryslers frenzied first day
The morning of Monday, November 16, 1998, I arrived for work at the Automotive News Europe offices in London’s Clerkenwell district dressed casually. There was no need to wear a coat and tie that day because I planned to spend the day writing stories.
Normalcy was shattered abruptly about 10 a.m. That is when Automotive News Europe Editor Rick Johnson’s phone rang. It was Diana Kurylko, our reporter covering Daimler-Benz. She was very sick, which meant she was unable to take a very important trip she had
scheduled that day.
Rick hung up the phone and asked in his usual deadpan way: “Uh Brad, would you mind going to New York tonight?”
“New York?!,” I spluttered.
“Yeah, Diana was supposed to go to the DaimlerChrysler day-one event at the New York Stock Exchange tomorrow morning. We need somebody to represent us. Can you do it? Oh, and by the way, you have to go to Frankfurt first because the charter plane to New York is leaving from there,” Rick said. “They’re going to start trading the company’s stock on both the Frankfurt Stock Exchange and the New York Stock Exchange. Jürgen Schrempp and Bob Eaton will both be there. We need a story.”
“But Frankfurt is an hour ahead of London,” I said. “My passport is at home, and I’ll have to pack an overnight bag.”
Rick replied: “Better get moving then.”
Thus began the most frenzied 48 hours of my Automotive News Europe career.
After calling to reserve a seat on a mid-afternoon British Airways flight to Frankfurt, I caught a cab for the 45-minute ride to my flat in north suburban Muswell Hill. I had about two hours to make it to London’s Heathrow Airport. The cab driver waited outside while I sprinted upstairs to put on a suit and pack a toothbrush and change of clothes.
I made my gate at Heathrow with moments to spare and arrived in Frankfurt at about 5:30 p.m.
I hurried to the Frankfurt Stock Exchange, where the ceremonies were due to conclude at about 6:30 p.m.
Entering the building breathless, I found Schrempp and Eaton smoking cigars, drinking champagne and basking in the glory of their earth-shattering transatlantic “merger.”
Their deal was the story of the decade in the car business.
About 45 minutes after arriving at the stock exchange, I found myself being herded on to a bus along with other journalists. We were bound for the airport from which I had just arrived.
Waiting for us at the airport was a brand-new Boeing 777 operated by Lauda Air. Shortly after our takeoff at around 9 p.m., we were greeted over the intercom system by a gravelly voiced pilot. It was former Formula One world driving champion Niki Lauda.
He told us to sit back and relax. Lauda Air, courtesy of DaimlerChrysler, was going to make sure we didn’t die of hunger or thirst on the long flight to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.
Unfortunately, Schrempp and Eaton took a different plane to New York, presumably to allow themselves a few hours away from the inquisitive group.
We touched down in New York and arrived at our hotel in Manhattan after midnight.
There would be no sleeping late. The wakeup calls came at 6:30 a.m. because we were leaving for the New York Stock Exchange at 7:30 a.m.
When we arrived at the stock exchange we got some disappointing news. The gallery was already full.
We were going to have to sit in a windowless room outside and listen as Eaton and Schrempp rang the opening bell to herald the official launch of their new stock. It seemed a real anticlimax after all the trouble we’d gone through to get there.
After the ceremony, we were ushered into a waiting area.
Eaton and Schrempp were doing a full round of interviews.
The interview I had with the two executives was short, but it made a strong impression on me.
Both talked of the urgency of maintaining the integrity of the brands under their stewardship. They spoke of how the two of them had already triumphed over much adversity in hammering out the agreement to create a new global transportation company.
They stressed how much they needed each other and how well they worked together.
There was an unmistakable air of gloating.
Eaton was puffing on a giant cigar, while Schrempp chain-smoked cigarettes.
There was little space left for oxygen in the room.
Schrempp seemed downright manic.
Being an ex-smoker and a cancer survivor, I know firsthand how much damage smoking can do to one’s health.
I remember wondering how the DaimlerChrysler board could entrust the reins of their new global company to a guy who smoked cigarettes as though there were no tomorrow.
During our interview, Schrempp uttered these fateful words: “The integration can only work if you are honest and transparent; truthful to everybody in the company.”
Subsequent events would cause many to wonder whether Schrempp and his partner had indeed fully lived up to that mantra.
The “company of the 21st century” that Schrempp and Eaton trumpeted on November 17, 1998, in New York has been troubled since that very first day.
Bradford Wernle has been covering the automotive industry for 11 years. He spent six and a half years reporting about the European auto industry from London, first as a reporter for Automotive News Europe and then as Europe editor for ANE’s sister publication Automotive News. He now covers auto suppliers and industry issues for Automotive News in Detroit.
The crown jewel, the Mercedes-Benz brand, has lost some of its luster. Chrysler has been on a roller coaster ride. Attempts to forge a global empire with Japan’s Mitsubishi and Korea’s Hyundai as linchpins failed dismally.
Eaton long ago drifted into the sunset with his stock options and multimillion retirement package.
The American executive team that had rescued the old Chrysler Corp. and made it so appealing to Schrempp in the first place disintegrated.
Schrempp survived repeated crises, including a lawsuit by disgruntled investor Kirk Kerkorian. He left at the end of last year with more than a year to go on his contract. He has relinquished full control of the world’s fifth-largest automaker to his protege, Dieter Zetsche.
The verdict is still out on whether this massive merger has worked.
But the company put on a grand show on opening day – one I will never forget.
You can reach Bradford Wernle at email@example.com.