HE HAS NEVER managed a factory before - never even worked in one. Yet Andreas Renschler is captain of the biggest manufacturing gamble Daimler-Benz has ever taken outside of Europe.
The 39-year-old ski enthusiast is president and CEO of Mercedes-Benz US International Inc., the automaker's $1 billion venture to enter the world's fast-growing sport-utility market. Renschler has assembled a team of factory and marketing managers from all over North America, including the Japanese transplants. He has added a number of Daimler veterans and located the operation in rural Alabama.
In February the project's $350 million, state-of-the-art factory began slowly turning out the new Mercedes M class sport-utility. It will be sold in 170 markets around the world.
Renschler's mission is huge. Mercedes is using an all-new design to enter an all-new market segment, built in a brand-new factory with inexperienced workers. The managers are also new, and everyone must use production techniques that are new to the company.
How did a farm boy end up so involved with this project?
Partly, because he had an older brother. As was traditional, the older brother would obviously inherit the Renschler family farm. Andreas packed his bags and went off to study economic engineering and business administration.
He joined Daimler at the age of 29. His first job was helping to set up the company's profit center structure. In 1989, he was moved to the staff of Mercedes-Benz's chairman. There, he headed a task force to develop a light-truck strategy for Europe.
In 1992, Renschler was put in charge of a feasibility study to put Mercedes into the four-wheel-drive market. Renschler's findings: Mercedes must build a sport-utility. It must build it in the US, and it must embrace the lean manufacturing concepts of the Japanese auto industry.
The tall German factory boss doesn't fit the old mold of the strict Daimler executive. Renschler banned business suits from the Alabama plant. Employees call him by his first name and enjoy the freedom he gives them to resolve problems on their own.
He does not like early morning meetings. He prefers to stay at his desk into the night.
That habit is changing. Last year, Renschler and his wife, Petra, became parents of an American-born daughter.