Bernhard, who was chief operating officer of Chrysler from 2000 to 2004, has run Daimler's trucks unit since his removal a year ago as head of production at Mercedes. He has spoken this year of the need to cooperate with labor.
A source close to the works council said Bernhard was working well with Brecht, who is the workers' representative at the Gaggenau plant that makes powertrains for trucks.
Daimler has not announced any new cost cutting initiatives, so the relationship remains largely untested. But worker representatives say they have noticed a change in tone.
"It's less jarring," the source said of Bernhard's current conduct and effort to put behind him a reputation for aggressive cost-saving. "He is making an effort."
Bernhard clashed with Klemm over how to overhaul production at the Sindelfingen plant to cut manufacturing time per vehicle to 30 hours from an average of 60.
Aides to the IG Metall union official said a supervisory board decision to move Bernhard from Mercedes last year was taken unanimously. But sources familiar with the negotiations in February 2013 said Klemm insisted Bernhard be transferred before union officials would agree to extend Zetsche's contract to 2016.
Bernhard, a 53-year-old former McKinsey management consultant, has since taken the opportunity to show his engagement with products. He is currently developing a new range of trucks aimed at Africa and similar markets.
In seeking to establish better relations with labor leaders, he has taken pains to emphasize how he halted Daimler's plans to expand a factory in Brazil because local management had failed to agree first on certain key conditions with the unions.
"You have to get unions on board," he told a recent industry conference. "Otherwise you can't go ahead."
The Stuttgart company is still playing catch-up with rivals, making further cost cuts likely. Mercedes-Benz Cars had a return on sales of 6.5 percent in 2013, lagging Audi's 10.1 percent and BMW's automotive EBIT margin of 9.4 percent.
"What is important now for Daimler is to cultivate a culture of excellence," Herro said. Shareholders are cautiously optimistic but remain skeptical about the sustainability of the company's recent rebound, given a legacy of false dawns.
"We have seen in the past that Daimler suddenly fails to meet its targets. This trend has been ongoing for about a decade," said Henning Gebhardt, Head of EMEA Equities at Deutsche Asset & Wealth Management.
Zetsche has taken a leaf from Bernhard's playbook, burnishing his image as a cost-cutter, repeatedly telling reporters that a cost savings target of 2 billion euros by 2014 will probably be exceeded.
At the same time, Daimler's labor representatives have noticed Zetsche has been trying hard to keep them on his side. "He has made spontaneous visits to the factory floor and he wants to improve the dialogue with the work force with things like Q&A sessions on the company's intranet," said one.
The issue of succession will not formally be discussed until the year before his contract expires in early 2016. He may yet get a further extension, given surging profits and a number of new vehicle releases which have been well received by customers.
Aside from Bernhard, analysts see Chief Financial Officer Bodo Uebber, 54, and 53-year-old Hubertus Troska, the head of China operations, as potential candidates. Zetsche, 60, has given head of sales Ola Kaellenius some high-profile exposure, prompting speculation the Swede could be an outside contender.