(Corrects spelling of Bernhard in first bullet point)
* Combative labour leader to retire after 16 years on board
* Successor has worked with cost-cutter Wolfgang Bernhard
* Pressure on Daimler to narrow profitability gap on rivals
* Supervisory board reshuffle also bring in Bernhard mentor
By Edward Taylor and Ilona Wissenbach
FRANKFURT, March 30 The retirement from
Daimler's supervisory board of a combative trade
union veteran may smooth management-labour relations as the
German carmaker tries to cut costs and close a wide
profitability gap with its rivals.
Erich Klemm steps down as deputy chairman when he turns 60
next month after 16 years on the board. He has long resisted
cutbacks and last year forced managers to reassign cost-cutting
specialist Wolfgang Bernhard as a condition for extending the
contract of Daimler chief executive Dieter Zetsche.
Klemm's replacement on the 20-member supervisory board,
whose 10 worker representatives can block appointments and other
management decisions, is Michael Brecht, 48. He has already
forged a productive relationship in the trucks division with
Bernhard, who seen as a possible future Daimler CEO.
Zetsche has spent much of a decade slimming Daimler down
after a period of global expansion, frequently clashing with
Klemm and the unions in the process. But analysts say more cuts
are needed if its Mercedes-Benz car division is to improve on a
return on sales that is only two thirds of rivals Audi and BMW.
"Leadership may become a bit smoother with the retirement of
that union guy," said David Herro at Harris Associates L.P,
Daimler's fourth largest shareholder with a 1.36-percent stake.
Among three other appointments to the supervisory board is
the arrival of former Volkswagen CEO Bernd Pischetsrieder, which
may boost Bernhard's influence and promotion prospects.
Pischetsrieder was his mentor at VW, making him head of the
Bernhard, who has run the trucks unit since his removal a
year ago as head of production at Mercedes, has spoken this year
of the need to cooperate with labour. 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
power trains 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.
PRESSURE FOR RESULTS
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 labour
leaders, he has taken pains to emphasise 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 sceptical 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 labour representatives have
noticed Zetsche has been trying hard to keep them on side.
"He has made spontaneous visits to the factory floor and he
wants to improve the dialogue with the workforce 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.
(Editing by Alastair Macdonald)