Fading star Daimler CFO unexpectedly quits, leaving restructuring to new CEO

Bodo Uebber, for 14 years the finance chief at the maker of Mercedes-Benz cars, will resign at the end of 2019. That leaves incoming boss Ola Källenius to shape Daimler’s overhaul and focus on electric cars.
Soon to be driverless.

After Ola Källenius was named the new boss of carmaker Daimler, Chief Financial Officer Bodo Uebber took two weeks to reach a decision. On Sunday, Mr. Uebber said he would step down after his term runs out in December 2019.

Mr. Uebber has been CFO since 2004 and had hopes of succeeding outgoing CEO Dieter Zetsche but his chances all but evaporated with Mr. Källenius’ nomination. Mr. Uebber, 59, will leave it to the 49-year old Swedish executive to lead Daimler’s restructuring, which will see the maker of Mercedes-Benz cars and trucks split into three separate parts governed by a single holding company.

"It was not easy for me. But now is the time for the company to put my responsibilities in younger hands," Mr. Uebber said in a statement. "The path ahead, with its fundamental changes, requires long-term continuity in corporate management as well."

Mr. Uebber and Mr. Zetsche masterminded the restructuring, which will divide the company into passenger cars, trucks, and financial and mobility services. It could lead to a breakup of the group, an icon of Germany’s engineering prowess. The reshuffle is in reaction to the car industry’s move toward mass production of electric and self-driving vehicles. Daimler, which invented the motorized car in 1885, has at times been slow to adapt to new tastes and technologies.

Daimler’s share price lost a quarter of its value this year and investors have been pushing for radical changes, such as listing the trucks business. Rival VW, which owns Scania and MAN trucks, is considering such a step.

Two out, I'm in: Ola Källenius.

The Stuttgart-based company, which also owns US truck maker Freightliner and Japan’s FUSO, suffered an 8.2 percent drop in vehicle sales last month. It blamed stricter emissions regulations as a reason for the slump. Like VW, Daimler is under scrutiny from German and US regulators after the latter found suspiciously high emissions levels in some diesel cars. Daimler has always denied manipulating vehicles the way VW did but it recalled close to 1 million vehicles in Europe earlier this year.

In the US, the distance to Tesla has been widening. Daimler sold almost 10 percent fewer Mercedes-Benz cars in September, while the decline was 7 percent for the first nine months this year. The US electric carmaker was able to sell more of its Model 3 cars than Daimler was able to peddle of its comparable C-Class, which is also Daimler’s best-seller.

With Mr. Uebber’s departure, Mr. Källenius, who will become CEO in May, will have to face these tasks with a new head of finance. Three of his allies will join the boards of Daimler or the Mercedes-Benz car brand, while Mr. Källenius will head both Daimler as well as the passenger cars business.

Some Daimler shareholders were unhappy with Mr. Uebber’s resignation after the executive had successfully lead Daimler’s separation from Chrysler in 2007 and steered Daimler through the 2008 financial crisis and ensuing recession. “Daimler without Bodo is like Starbucks without coffee,” said Arndt Ellinghorst, analyst at ISI Evercore.

Markus Fasse specializes in aviation and automobile industry news and works from Handelsblatt's Munich office. Franz Hubik is an automotive reporter for Handelsblatt. He previously covered energy. To contact the authors: [email protected] and [email protected]