Just a few years ago, titans at the height of their power were at the helm of the biggest players in the European auto industry. Martin Winterkorn at Volkswagen Group, Sergio Marchionne of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, Rupert Stadler of Audi, Dieter Zetsche of Daimler and Carlos Ghosn of Renault all became CEOs in the mid-2000s. All of them navigated their companies through a brutal recession to robust profits and sales.
They were anything but cookie-cutter executives. Zetsche was “Dr. Z,” known for his handlebar mustache, jeans and sports coats. Ghosn, who in 2005 added control of Renault while remaining CEO of Nissan, was the prototypical “Davos Man,” perpetually circling the world in a corporate jet preaching the virtues of globalization. Marchionne’s trademark dark sweaters and grumpy-uncle demeanor charmed journalists and production line workers alike but belied a fierce competitiveness. Winterkorn, a rigorous engineer, commanded fear and respect in equal measures as he led VW Group to become the largest carmaker in the world.
Now, as the Geneva auto show opens, there has been a changing of the guard. Ghosn was ousted from Nissan and later resigned from Renault after his arrest last November on suspicion of financial irregularities. Winterkorn stepped down in 2015 amid the company’s diesel-cheating scandal and was replaced by Matthias Müller. Stadler was arrested and jailed last summer for his role in the emissions scandal. Marchionne died unexpectedly last summer at age 66. Zetsche, 65, is handing over control to a protege in May.
In their place: Herbert Diess, 60, at VW Group, who along with succeeding Müller has also added oversight of the automaker’s crucial Chinese operations to his portfolio; Mike Manley, 54, at FCA (with Louis Camilleri, 63, tapped to lead Ferrari); Ola Källenius, 49, at Daimler, where he will lead a restructuring; Bram Schot, 57, at Audi, where he will also lead Lamborghini and Ducati; and, at Renault, a dual leadership team consisting of CEO Thierry Bolloré, 55, a former Faurecia and Michelin veteran, and Chairman Jean-Dominique Senard, 65 who is retiring as CEO of Michelin.
“Those guys were larger-than-life figures who transcended their industry,” said Tim Urquhart, an analyst at IHS Markit, “but maybe it’s time for a new generation, especially at the current moment.”