The strange thing is that May 6, 1998, a Wednesday, started out just like any other day. Then, bam, a story in the European edition of The Wall Street Journal that Chrysler might merge with Daimler-Benz or be taken over.
This was seismic.
The following day — 20 years ago today — the deal was announced, or more like proclaimed, at a hastily called yet flawlessly organized press conference at the London Arena, where security guards wore matching bronze jackets, waiters circulated with trays of canapes and fruit punch, and Chrysler Corp. CEO Bob Eaton never once stopped smiling.
Whatever kind of deal it was, a merger or takeover or just a jamming together of two giant companies, it was beyond historic. It was apocalyptic.
I was there along with two London-based Automotive News Europe colleagues, Bill Diem and Kathy Jackson. We sat in thrall at this union that had not been rumored or speculated and yet was suddenly upon us.
I watched as Eaton, on stage, called it a "merger of equals." I recall thinking I'd never heard the term "merger of equals" and that it sounded like wishful thinking.
The fact that it was Eaton who first used the term that day — with a rather insistent tone — seemed significant. Daimler-Benz chief Juergen Schrempp, Eaton's new co-chairman, merely nodded.
Then Eaton — whom I'd known and admired when he headed General Motors Europe before going to Chrysler in 1992 — said something else I'd never heard before. He announced he would retire within three years, which sounded to me as though Schrempp and Eaton would never be co-anything. Not really.
Ahead of the press conference, Diem, managing editor of Automotive News Europe, surmised that the new company would be named "Chrysler-Benz." In fact, he was convinced of it. He seemed ready to call the idea in to Stuttgart and Auburn Hills just in case they hadn't thought of it. But when the three of us arrived at the London Arena, "DaimlerChrysler" was emblazoned on everything in sight.
Yet Bill was onto something. The top Chrysler guys had insisted on a name that was more or less what he had reckoned — and when they didn't get it, or rather when Eaton didn't get it for them, it was an early sign that the deal was doomed.
Most of us know the sad story of DaimlerChrysler. It was the culture clash heard 'round the world. The damage is still being assessed, the lessons still being absorbed.
Tom Stallkamp, Chrysler Group's first president under Eaton and Schrempp, lasted only until September 1999. His successor, Jim Holden, was in the job just 13 months. Dieter Zetsche replaced Holden as CEO of Chrysler and stayed until January 2006, when he returned to Germany to succeed Schrempp.
In 2007, DaimlerChrysler was dissolved and the Chrysler part sold to the private equity group Cerberus — a sad conclusion to what began as a great spectacle. Here is the story straight from the mouths of those who lived it. Attempts to reach other participants, both at Chrysler and Daimler, either went unanswered or the requests were declined.