Fuel cell specialist, weekend pilot guides revival
September 3, 2007 - 12:01 am EST
In 2004, Andreas Schell led a crack team of DaimlerChrysler engineers that patented a process for generating hydrogen gas for use in fuel cells. But the brainy young German's career has taken a sharp turn since those days.
Last week, Schell was named point man for Bob Nardelli's effort to revive ailing Chrysler LLC.
The energetic 38-year-old, who spends his weekends piloting small airplanes, will oversee Chrysler's Recovery and Transformation Plan. In effect, Schell becomes chief enforcement officer when it comes to sticking with the plan. He will report jointly to CEO Nardelli and President Tom LaSorda - and his power will be vast.
Chrysler spokesman Mike Aberlich said Schell will be a combination "scorekeeper plus referee plus quarterback" in keeping the recovery plan on track.
His appointment may reflect the kind of uncommon approach that Cerberus Capital Management LP will take at Chrysler - thrusting a relatively junior executive into a make-or-break job.
For his part, Schell exudes enthusiasm and self confidence as he prepares to work with the seven turnaround teams that cover all areas of Chrysler's business.
"I have very good program management skills," he said in a phone interview. "I am very qualified to work with that team. I have the right network and relationships to approach those executives and work with them to achieve the targets."
Besides setting strategy for the recovery and transformation, Schell has responsibility for material cost management and is executive planner in the office of the chairman.
Schell said he aims to "go deep into the details … and drive a content-driven discussion.
"The Recovery and Transformation Plan is an operational improvement program," he said. "What we do there is not going to help us in the short term but really sets the company up for long-term success."
Chrysler's recovery plan, unveiled in February, calls for cutting 13,000 jobs; reducing annual capacity by 400,000 units; idling an assembly plant in Newark, Del.; and returning to profitability next year. Chrysler is also spending $3 billion to develop new engines, transmissions and axles under the plan.
Most recently, Schell was senior manager in the office of the president and CEO - in effect the top executive assistant to the CEO while LaSorda held that job.
Schell's job was "a German construct," said an insider - an apprenticeship offered to promising young executives. DaimlerChrysler CEO Dieter Zetsche and former Chrysler COO Wolfgang Bernhard launched their careers in similar posts.
Associates say Schell handled the office manager job deftly. Such chiefs of staff can be intensely disliked because they serve as an unwanted barrier to people who want to get through to the boss. Sources say Schell avoided such pitfalls.
"Andreas did a good job in figuring out when to be gatekeeper and when to open the gate," says Aberlich. "So he has a lot of support in the company. He's an energetic individual who has brought a real spirit to everything he touched."
Before becoming LaSorda's executive aide, Schell was senior manager in charge of fuel cell systems advance vehicle engineering at Chrysler. He worked for Daimler-Benz in Germany before the 1998 merger of Daimler and Chrysler Corp. He joined the German automaker in 1996.
Learning about America
In 2002, Schell transferred to Chrysler to take the fuel cell post. He then set up Chrysler's hybrid program office in suburban Detroit. Since then Schell has embraced American culture and is eager to learn more about it.
"He's forever asking about little American sayings and trying to understand them," says Aberlich. "He's got this thirst for knowledge like Dieter Zetsche had about the American culture."
On his office wall, Schell has a map of the United States with pins in it representing places he has visited. He has already visited 41 states. Both Schell and his wife are also avid photographers.
Since moving to Michigan, Schell has earned his pilot's license and likes to spend weekends flying out of Oakland-Pontiac Airport, a short distance from Chrysler headquarters in the northern Detroit suburbs.
Schell, who has an MBA from Michigan State University, decided soon after the DaimlerChrysler divorce that he wanted to remain with the Chrysler side of the business.
"I like living in the United States," he said. "I'm a true believer in Michigan."
Chrysler officials say Schell's appointment is no threat to LaSorda, who was demoted to president and vice chairman when Nardelli was brought on board Aug. 6.
There have been reports that LaSorda would leave the company after contract talks with the UAW end. To quell those concerns, Chrysler signed LaSorda to a new contract in late August. Indeed, a source familiar with Chrysler's management said it would be premature to write LaSorda off.
"He's being evaluated like everybody else."
Schell could actually take pressure off LaSorda, said David Cole, director of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich.
"You want to operate the company," Cole said, "but you want to create a force to foster change."
Schell has no doubt he can be a change agent.
"I believe there's a lot of potential in Chrysler," he said. "I think we can do this job. I'm passionate about opportunity to be part of this team."