The legendary Daimler-Benz boss Joachim Zahn would have been 100 years old in January. While cleaning up my hard drive, I came across an obituary I wrote about his death in 2002. Sometimes I listen to the interview tapes on which the professor says direction. I am always impressed.
First it should be his book, then my book and finally our book. It won't be a book now. Many hours of tape recordings of personal conversations at his home, in his office littered with files and newspaper clippings in Stuttgart-Untertürkheim, where the executive furniture from the 88s still stands, or in the Stuttgart Hotel Schlossgarten, where he lived in an apartment. Hundreds of notes from telephone conversations, often lasting several hours, in which the XNUMX-year-old had formulated crystal clear thoughts - all of which are no longer necessary. Because I had to promise the professor that I would never write anything that he had not approved. Nothing can come of it now. Because I can't ask him anymore. Our planned book project remains my personal memory. Even unprinted, it is a very valuable experience for which I am grateful.
I got to know Joachim Zahn in the mid-25s. He was the famous boss of Daimler-Benz, I was a young editor in Stuttgart who was allowed to interview him. He answered all of my questions very patiently, but in a nutshell. Even then, I was impressed by its precision in expression. After that we didn't talk to each other for about 25 years. In the past four years it has been all the more as if we had to make up for XNUMX years of silence. Over the years, I continued to provide journalistic support to the Daimler-Benz company, but without personal contact with the CEO of Daimler-Benz called Zahn. Then came his successors, Prince, Breitschwerdt, Reuter and finally Schrempp.
After Edzard Reuter's memoirs (“Appearance and Reality”) had appeared and I discussed the book and described Edzard Reuter and Werner Niefer as two people who complemented each other in a certain helplessness, Zahn called and invited me to Stuttgart: “The article is the only one who describes the truth about this unspeakable duo. You really showed courage. We need to talk to each other. Thank you. ”Of course he was exaggerating. But anyone who has ever been praised by Professor Zahn could have imagined it. Because only very few people really praised Zahn. Probably even less estimated.
He could go wild when his secretary couldn't find some pad buried on his crowded table. But was touchingly worried about her when she wasn't feeling well. After my book review we talked more and more on the phone, for hours. Some days three times, but definitely once a week in detail. I visited Zahn in his beautiful Munich house full of art treasures, in his office and in the hotel. I don't know why, I had Zahn's unwavering trust. He was telling me things that shouldn't be told to a journalist. About his family, his son (commuting between Germany and Brazil), his son-in-law (ex-Mannesmann boss Esser), about his model policy at Mercedes at the time, about his secret of designing the Mercedes balance sheet in such a way that the golden border remained invisible ("That would only have aroused desires"). He told of his attitude as an officer to Hitler (“an unspeakable criminal”), of an officer from Berlin, who knew how to motivate himself shortly before the end and said to him: “Before I let me down, let's face the final victory. “Unimportant, highly explosive, exciting, familiar, professional. Somehow I felt that my listening was good for him. I learned everything about his quarrel with the founders of Germany AG Flick and von Brauchitsch, his admiration for banker Abs, his tactics in selling 14 percent of the Daimler shares to the oil sheiks of Kuwait. "After the oil crisis of 72/73 that was politically absolute explosive." Every now and then he winced - shockingly at himself -: "If you ever write that ..." Of course I never disappointed him.
Our conversations have turned into a kind of professional friendship, especially in the last two years. If I had any questions about the global economic situation in the automotive industry, he could answer them. If I wanted to know what his negotiations with Fiat about the purchase of Lancia were like many years ago, he would tell me the whole story. How it was when Brezhnev from Mercedes had wrecked a car and wanted a new one, he hadn't forgotten anything. If I wanted to know how the return at Mercedes was in the sixties, he knew the answer (“What we earned on the Nitribitt-SL was an indecent amount”). Why he sold Auto Union to Volkswagen, what it was like back then when Hanns-Martin Schleyer was kidnapped and he flew to Chancellor Helmut Schmidt with Reuter, what he felt when the news of his death came, he could talk about everything excitingly for hours, pulled Compare with today, analyzed in a fascinating way. A cue, a question was enough, and he spread all his knowledge about it. Its profound substance made me speechless again and again. I had to catch my breath when he suddenly asked: "Did you understand that?" Or: "What do you mean, am I wrong, do I think too one-dimensional?" - My God, Zahn thought five-dimensional, linked everything where it belongs together, but nobody saw the connection straight away.
When I once asked him what his biggest mistake was, it came like a shot: “That I helped Edzard Reuter become a member of the board. A totally incompetent man who became more than he was. “He only hired him out of pity, Zahn told me. The then Mayor of Stuttgart Arnulf Klett and his wife approached him and said that the son of the great Ernst Reuter (first governing mayor in post-war Berlin) had to find a good job. “I let myself be pounded softly. If I had known who to get, I would never have complied with Klett's request. ”Zahn kept referring to Reuter in our conversations. Never praising. Reuters strategic move away from the car company to the technology group was "a moronic mortal sin". With Jürgen E. Schrempp, this wrong strategy was corrected at the last minute before twelve. Zahn repeatedly accused Reuter of being a hypocrite: "No one has put as much emphasis on the production of armaments as the alleged pacifist Reuter, who, as an SPD man, let his party comrades celebrate himself." totally twisted ”, Zahn never got wounded.
It's unbelievable what kind of personality I've got to know over the past four years. A person with so many facets. And with such a clear head. If he didn't think of the name of a director from the past, he said regretfully: “I'm getting older.” He didn't want to flirt with it or make a joke, he meant it! He lived for Daimler-Benz, and he died a totally committed Daimler man. He knew everything that was going on and going on in the company. He was networked like few, carried many of the great managers of Deutschland AG to the grave and was always deeply shaken, like when the Bosch legend Merkle, “my friend”, died. His reference to "which car brand is currently popular in the premium segment: Go to the funerals of prominent business captains" is also interesting. He complained that there was a decline in Mercedes vehicles there.
The professor was always under full steam. A few weeks ago he called me and compressed me: “Why don't you contact me?” We had only had a week of radio silence because I was traveling. Mostly it was he who called. Often he started almost without a greeting with a question: “Have you read that?” Or: “I would like to hear your opinion” in order to choke me off immediately and tell me his opinion in an elegiac breadth. His favorite phrase: "Long story, long sense!" Indeed, his analyzes were never short and always made sense. There were days when we talked on the phone several times, and it rarely went off for less than an hour. But he never took it amiss when I said: "I have to break up now" or "I don't have time now."
Although Zahn had problems with his eyes: I've never met someone who read so much. He read the daily press in several languages, knew which business lead the "New York Times" had yesterday and today, read English, American and German business magazines, registered every spike on the stock market, was able to recite the production cycles and model developments of the last forty years by heart, knew what BMW or Volkswagen were doing right and wrong, knew the exact returns, the P / E ratio of the last 20 years, the dollar exchange rate, dividends. Again and again he sent me mountains of copies of letters and documents, newspaper clippings with annotations in his hard-to-read small handwriting, with underlines and question marks.
Joachim Zahn was the official advisor to the Daimler-Chrysler group until his death. He often put his advice in writing. Zahn was in his Untertürkheim office almost every week, staying in contact with executives in the company and in business. Nothing escaped him. He has not found all of the company's decisions in recent years to be good, but his appreciation for Jürgen E. Schrempp and his return to the auto company counted more than anything else. “Schrempp did the right thing by turning back to the car, there is no doubt about that,” praised Zahn, who was as happy as a little boy when he was invited to her birthday by Duz's friend Lydia Schrempp.
When I visited him in his office in Untertürkheim (the chairman of the board was here in the XNUMXs before the Daimler high-rise was built), I still felt the awe that came from the Mercedes plant at the sound of the name Prof. Zahn. His devoted secretaries, Frau Görner and Frau Haug, both themselves in their seventies, but kept busy by tooth and thirty-year-olds, only had to call the factory gate and notify me, including their license plate number.
I no longer had to fill out a pass, the barrier went up as if the professor himself had pressed the button. And the security guards were always particularly friendly when they knew that I wanted to “see Professor Zahn”. In the future I will probably have to fill out a pass again. - It was shortly before his death when Linde boss Wolfgang Reitzle told me after a visit to Zahn that I had organized at the end of September that Zahn had bumped his head. Nonetheless, Zahn stuck to the appointment that he had made long in advance, even though he could have canceled it. Reitzle later told me that he, too, was impressed by this young, old man whom he really wanted to get to know. When I called Zahn a few days later, his secretary said he was unavailable. Zahn had forbidden her to tell callers about his hospital stay. Typical Professor Zahn. Just don't show weakness. He was like that all his life. And that's how he died. I am very sad and miss him, although he could also be a nuisance, for example if he caught me on my cell phone while checking in for a flight and didn't want to stop talking. I learned a lot from him, but I learned more from him. He was one of the great captains of business and a full-blooded entrepreneur like few are.
I would have liked to have written his / our book. Now there was only one obituary.
Even today, in 2014, listening to our audio recordings makes me very thoughtful. He foresaw many developments not only at Daimler. He thought the Maybach was “a terrific mistake”. He said: “How can you at Mercedes-Benz claim to build the best car in the world - and then want to put your own brand on top of it. People buy a Rolls-Royce or maybe a Mercedes Pullman, but not a Maybach because nobody knows this story. ”Zahn had the little Mercedes developed, the Baby Benz, today's C-Class. The 190 was actually only supposed to be built for the USA in order to meet the expected consumption regulations. The experienced Daimler driver admitted to me that the car would be a worldwide success "I didn't even suspect". When he sold Auto Union (Audi) to Volkswagen, he certainly did not suspect that this brand would one day overtake Mercede-Benz. He had two arguments in favor of the sale: “We needed the money for a truck plant. And besides, premium and mass do not fit under one roof. ”In the mid-XNUMXs, Zahn considered it impossible that Audi would one day become a top premium brand.
No doubt that Zahn was one of the largest and most talented business leaders in Germany. That he made Daimler-Benz a global company remains undisputed. In this respect I would still write this obituary as I did in 2002. And I still have this respect for the Professor, whose book I would have liked to have written. In this respect, the many sound recordings are my very personal "audio book" with the title "Long speech, long meaning".