Daimler CEO succession talk reignites after Mercedes exec Renschler quits

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FRANKFURT (Reuters) -- Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche may have his contract extended beyond 2016 on the back of last year's recovery, analysts and executives said after the surprise departure of Mercedes-Benz Cars production boss Andreas Renschler who was tipped for the top.

Succession has been a divisive issue at Daimler, and last year the supervisory board extended 60-year-old Zetsche's contract by three years, instead of an expected five. The board also shuffled senior managers to test the potential of other leadership candidates.

Since then, Daimler has narrowed the sales gap with its premium-car rivals BMW and Audi, and Mercedes-Benz has launched well-received new products.

Zetsche remains head of Mercedes-Benz Cars, where Renschler was head of manufacturing. Renschler will leave the company with immediate effect, Daimler said on Tuesday, citing "personal reasons."

Renschler's departure, Daimler's recovery, and Zetsche's recent charm offensive toward labor unions, may bolster his prospects of another contract extension. "The latest move means Zetsche's position is uncontested," said one Daimler employee, who declined to be named.

No successor has been chosen and Zetsche's contract terms are unaltered, a Daimler spokeswoman said on Wednesday.

Power struggle

Renschler, 55, took on the production job at Mercedes in April as part of the executive reshuffle, which made him feel he had become a pawn in a power struggle between the supervisory board and Zetsche, a person familiar with his thinking said.

Renschler's contract was due to expire in 2018.

"In our view his move from head of Daimler trucks to running Mercedes production was a step backwards," analysts at ISI said.

In April, Daimler's chairman said that Renschler's move from running the company's trucks division, where he was replaced by Wolfgang Bernhard, would allow both men to showcase their leadership potential.

The Wall Street Journal said that one reason for Renschler's resignation might be that he was having to wait too long to take the top job. "If Dieter wants to work for six years, I would not be happy to do my job," Renschler was quoted as saying by the paper.

Daimler said the comments had been misunderstood. "Renschler's comments have been taken out of context. He merely wanted to point out that he is not an obvious succession candidate because he is of a similar age as Dieter Zetsche, and would therefore not be a candidate to lead Daimler when Zetsche retires, whenever this may happen," a spokesman said.

CEO contenders

Analysts cite three Daimler executives who are seen as contenders if Zetsche's contract is not extended. They are: Chief Financial Officer Bodo Uebber, 54; Bernhard, 53; and Hubertus Troska, 53, head of its China operations, Berstein Research analysts said in a note.

Analysts say Renschler may take a job at Volkswagen to help integrate its trucks businesses: MAN, Scania and Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles.

Two sources at Volkswagen said they had no knowledge of a job offered by VW to Renschler. Volkswagen declined to comment.

Volkswagen's management in Wolfsburg is growing frustrated with a lack of progress forging a truck alliance designed to reap cost savings and take on Daimler, two sources at VW group familiar with the matter told Reuters.

A clause in Renschler's contract prevented an immediate such switch to a competitor, Daimler said.

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