DaimlerBenz AG of Stuttgart, Germany, and the Chrysler Corporation of Auburn Hills, Michigan, surprised the business world at a press conference in London on May 7, 1998, when they announced their “merger of equals made in heaven.” This major cross-border transaction, with an equity value of $36 billion, was the largest merger of its kind to date. Robert Eaton and JÃ¼rgen E. Schrempp, co-chairmen of DCX, announced their expectation that this deal would be “not only the best strategic merger or the best prepared merger, but also the best executed merger.”
Daimler-Benz Chief Executive JÃ¼rgen Schrempp had concluded as early as 1996 that his company’s automotive operations needed a partner to compete in the increasingly globalized marketplace. Chrysler’s Eaton was drawing the same conclusion in 1997 based on two factors emerging around the same time: the Asian economic crisis, which was cutting into demand, and worldwide excess auto manufacturing capacity, which was looming and would inevitably lead to industry consolidation. With annual global overcapacity as high as 18.2 million vehicles predicted for the early 21st century, it became clearer that Daimler-Benz and Chrysler could survive as merely regional players if they continued to go it alone.
After several months of negotiations, Daimler-Benz and Chrysler reached a merger agreement in May 1998 to create DaimlerChrysler AG in a $37 billion deal. The deal was consummated in November 1998, forming an auto behemoth with total revenues of $130 billion, factories in 34 countries on four continents, and combined annual unit sales of 4.4 million cars and trucks. The two companies fit well together geographically, Daimler strong in Europe and Chrysler in North America, and in terms of product lines, with Daimler’s luxurious and high-quality passenger cars and Chrysler’s line of low-production-cost trucks, minivans, and sport utility vehicles. Although this was ostensibly a merger of equals–the company set up co-headquarters in Stuttgart and Auburn Hills, naming Eaton and Schrempp co-chairmen–it soon became clear that the Germans were taking over the Americans. DaimlerChrysler was set up as a German firm for tax and accounting purposes, and the early 2000 departures of Thomas Stallkamp, the initial head of DaimlerChrysler’s U.S. operations, and Eaton (who was originally slated to remain until as late as November 2001) left Schrempp in clear command of the company.
During 1999 DaimlerChrysler concentrated on squeezing out $1.4 billion in annual cost savings from the integration of procurement and other functional departments. The company organized its automotive businesses into three divisions: Mercedes-Benz Passenger Cars/smart, the Chrysler Group, and Commercial Vehicles. In November 1999 DaimlerChrysler announced that it would begin phasing out the aging Plymouth brand. The Debis services division was merged with Chrysler’s services arm to form DaimlerChrysler Services, while DASA was renamed DaimlerChrysler Aerospace. Late in 1999 the company reached an agreement to merge DaimlerChrysler Aerospace with two other European aerospace firms, the French Aerospatiale Matra and the Spanish CASA, to form the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company (EADS). DaimlerChrysler would hold a 30 percent stake in EADS, which would be the largest aerospace firm in Europe and the third largest in the world.
In early 2000, DaimlerChrysler set the lofty goal of becoming the number one automaker in the world within three years. The company’s most pressing needs were to bolster its presence in Asia, where less than 4 percent of the company’s overall revenue was generated, and to gain a larger share of the small car market in Europe. Filling both of these bills was DaimlerChrysler’s purchase of a 34 percent stake in Mitsubishi Motors Corporation for $2 billion, a deal announced in late March. The company later increased its interest in Mitsubishi when it purchased a 3.3 percent stake from Volvo. In another key early 2000 development, DaimlerChrysler agreed to join with GM and Ford to create an Internet-based global business-to-business supplier exchange named Covisint.
DaimlerChrysler’s lofty goal would remain unrealized however, as the company faced a host of challenges. The Chrysler Group division was plagued by high costs and weak sales which ultimately cost James P. Holden his CEO position. Buoyed by its strong sales in the mid-1990s, Chrysler had spent heavily on product development in the late 1990s and bolstered its work force while costs were skyrocketing. By the second half of 2000 Chrysler lost $1.8 billion while spending over $5 billion. Dieter Zetsche was tapped to reorganize the faltering U.S. division. He launched a major restructuring effort in February 2001 that included cutting $2 billion in costs, making additional cuts in supplier costs, slashing 20 percent of its workforce, and making changes to Chrysler’s product line that included the elimination of the Jeep Cherokee (the Grand Cherokee remained in the product line) and the launch of the Jeep Liberty.
At the same time, global economies began to weaken in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. To entice customers, car makers began offering buyer incentives that began to wreak havoc on profits. Industry analysts began to speculate that the 1998 merger may have been a mistake–Schrempp’s proclamation that the deal would create the most profitable car maker in world had indeed fallen short. In fact, the company’s market capitalization was $38 billion in September 2003. Before the union Daimler’s market cap had been $47 billion.
Meanwhile, the company’s Mercedes division plugged along launching the E-Class sedan, the SLK roadster, and the Maybach luxury vehicle. In 2003, Chrysler launched the Crossfire, a roadster developed with Mercedes components, and the Pacifica, a SUV/minivan. It also began to heavily market its powerful Hemi engine, which could be purchased for the Dodge Ram pickup and its passenger cars. In early 2004, Chrysler’s 300C sedan and the Dodge Magnum sports wagon made their debut.
Competition remained fierce in the auto industry prompting DaimlerChrysler to make several changes in its strategy. In December 2003, the company sold its MTU Aero Engines business. That year the firm acquired a 43 percent stake in Mitsubishi Fuso Truck and Bus Corporation hoping to cash in on Asia’s growing truck market. Perhaps its most drastic move, however, came in April 2004 when DaimlerChrysler’s supervisory board voted against providing funds to bailout Mitsubishi Motors, which by now was struggling under losses and a huge debt load. Mitsubishi played a crucial role in Schrempp’s Asian expansion strategy and it developed the platforms for Chrysler’s compact and midsize cars. The failure to provide funds put a strain on the business relationship between the two and threatened to result in huge problems for Chrysler, which had cut back on engineering capacity as it relied on Mitsubishi to develop its small and mid-sized cars.
At the same time, DaimlerChrysler moved ahead in the Chinese market–without Mitsubishi and without another partner, Hyundai. To bolster is presence in the region, DaimlerChrysler restructured its joint venture with Beijing Automotive Industry Holding Co. Ltd. and set plans in motion to tie up with Chinese Fujian Motor Industry Group and the Taiwanese China Motor Corporation to launch several cars in the Chinese market by 2005. Rumors circulated that DaimlerChrysler’s relationship with Hyundai was faltering as a result, and in 2004 the company signaled that it would sell its interest in the South Korean automaker.
By 2004, Schrempp’s DaimlerChrysler was a far cry from what the 1998 merger promised to deliver. The company’s financial record was lackluster, bogged down by Chrysler’s $637 million loss in 2003. DaimlerChrysler remained the world’s number three car maker, leaving the 2000 goal–to become the number one auto company in the world–unfulfilled. Whether the merger would provide the hoped-for results remained to be seen.