July 27, 2007 at 1:00 am

Bernhard to become Chrysler chairman

Popular executive makes a comeback, will assist LaSorda, who remains as CEO.

Wolfgang Bernhard, a senior adviser to Cerberus Capital Management LP and talented former top Chrysler executive, will return to the Auburn Hills automaker as the chairman of its board, people familiar with the situation said Thursday.

Tom LaSorda will remain CEO of Chrysler and will also be president in the new organization after the sale of Chrysler is concluded, they said.

Ever since DaimlerChrysler AG announced on May 14 that it was selling Chrysler to Cerberus, Cerberus executives have said LaSorda would stay on as CEO.

But Bernhard's role was less clear. As an adviser to Cerberus, he is influencing decisions in Auburn Hills, where he has an office. But he keeps a low profile.

His formal return after three years would likely energize Chrysler employees who recall the 46-year-old German executive as a dashing and dynamic figure.

It also represents a big comeback opportunity for Bernhard, who lost two high-profile jobs in four years after fierce boardroom battles.

"This is good news for Chrysler," said Daniel Gorrell, president of AutoStratagem, a research and consulting firm in Tustin, Calif. "He'll interject a sense of product urgency that Chrysler has been lacking -- and product is what Chrysler lives and dies on."

Dealers welcomed the prospect of Bernhard's return. "We need somebody that's strong," said Alan Helfman, vice president of River Oaks Chrysler Jeep in Houston.

"If you've ever been in a room with Wolfgang, vitality just spills out all around him."

A spokesman for DaimlerChrysler AG declined to comment on Bernhard's appointment, which was first reported by the German magazine Manager.

Cerberus issued a guarded denial. "There is no such plan at this time," spokesman Peter Duda said Thursday.

In a recent interview, Cerberus Chairman John Snow said the private-equity firm had been working on the structure of the board but declined to discuss potential members.

Sources close to the situation say there will be a board for Chrysler at the holding-company level, and two boards for the Chrysler automotive and financial services businesses. It was unclear whether Bernhard would head the automotive or holding-company board but he is expected to be the top director, the sources said.

Cerberus is paying $7.4 billion for 80.1 percent of Chrysler, and Stuttgart, Germany-based DaimlerChrysler will retain the rest. The deal is expected to close in the second week of August.

On Wednesday, DaimlerChrysler CEO Dieter Zetsche said he still expected the deal to close on schedule, sometime during the third quarter, despite recent difficulties in arranging some of the financing for Chrysler because of bond market jitters.

Zetsche, former CEO of Chrysler, and Bernhard, its former chief operating officer, arrived in Auburn Hills together in November 2000 to fix the U.S. automaker, which had begun to lose money.

They executed a painful restructuring but also brought excitement and a new sense of confidence to Chrysler.

In 2004, Bernhard was tapped to run DaimlerChrysler's luxury carmaker Mercedes-Benz, but he clashed with Mercedes veterans and powerful worker representatives. Days before he was to become head of Mercedes, Bernhard opposed DaimlerChrysler's then-CEO Jrgen Schrempp on whether to bail out the company's Japanese affiliate Mitsubishi Motors Corp. That sealed his fate at DaimlerChrysler.

He was subsequently hired by Volkswagen AG's then-CEO Bernd Pischetsrieder to run the big VW division.

Bernhard tackled VW's bloated costs and improved its lineup. But his position foundered in the fall of 2006 after Pischetsrieder was driven out. Bernhard left VW in January. Still on good terms with Zetsche, he was retained soon afterward by Cerberus, which was drafting its bid for Chrysler.

Gerald Meyers, a business professor at the University of Michigan and former chairman of the AMC automaker, said he would not be surprised if Bernhard were appointed chairman of the board.

"Whether it's formal or not, I think he is going to run the show," Meyers said. "He is either going to be the force behind the scenes or out front clearly. There's nothing passive about Wolfgang."

You can reach Christine Tierney at (313) 222-1463 or ctierney@detnews.com">ctierney@detnews.com.

Former COO Wolfgang Bernhard, shown in 2003, helped bring excitement and ... (Getty Images)
2008 Jeep Liberty Limited