In September, after issuing an embarrassing profit warning, DaimlerChrysler chief executive Dieter Zetsche was asked in a conference call if he would consider selling the automaker's ailing Chrysler Group.
"I think the simple answer," Zetsche replied, "is no."
Within weeks, however, as the depth of Chrysler's troubles became evident, the answer changed to maybe.
The company is now actively exploring a sale and working with bankers to prepare the detailed financial and operating data that potential buyers would need to put a value on Chrysler, raising the prospect that the automaker could auction off its U.S. unit in the coming months, two people close to the matter said.
DaimlerChrysler has received several expressions of interest in Chrysler from around the world since it said last week that it was considering "all options" to turn the unprofitable unit around, these people said.
It is unclear what kind of price Chrysler would command. Its value would depend on the details of operating contracts that would be negotiated with any buyer, covering the sharing of platforms, design and engineering services. Initial analyst estimates have ranged from $6.57 billion to $13.14 billion.
The fate of Chrysler may not be determined by its value, but by the personal conviction of Zetsche.
Zetsche, a former Mercedes-Benz engineer, ran Chrysler from 2000 until 2005 and pulled off a surprising but ultimately short-lived turnaround.
At least some top executives at DaimlerChrysler's headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany, are determined to try to sell Chrysler or spin it off to existing shareholders rather than restructure it again, one of the people close to the matter said.
Zetsche has not publicly indicated his preferences. A DaimlerChrysler spokesman reiterated the company's statement last week that it is looking at "all options" and declined to comment further.
Although some shareholders, especially those in Germany, have long called for DaimlerChrysler to jettison its U.S. division, Zetsche had until recently remained upbeat about Chrysler's long-term potential and the wisdom of having the division work closely with the company's Mercedes unit.
In an interview in June, Zetsche said he was "totally convinced we are heading in the right direction with Chrysler." He added he was working to "really finish the merger" and to make Chrysler and Mercedes cooperate more closely.
After Chrysler's summer sales effort fizzled, it became clear that its string of 12 profitable quarters was coming to an end. In late July, Zetsche presented the company's second-quarter earnings and warned that Chrysler would stumble to a third-quarter loss of about $790 million.
Several weeks later, he was back on a conference call with analysts to acknowledge that Chrysler's loss would be as much as $1.6 billion. Barely able to conceal his anger, the normally affable executive called the announcement "utterly unacceptable."
Still, he said there was no thought about selling Chrysler, and he repeated that position a few days later in an interview.
"I don't think that's a topic for today. . . . I'm as much a Chrysler guy as a Mercedes guy -- more so than anyone in this company. So it's evident I would want to take Chrysler to the levels of performance we think are possible," Zetsche said.
As the weeks dragged on, the company continued to publicly rule out a Chrysler sale, even as it became clear that the position was becoming harder to maintain. In October, during a conference call with analysts, DaimlerChrysler's chief financial officer, Bodo Uebber, declined to rule out the idea of selling Chrysler, triggering a spike in the company's share price, as investors pounced on hopes of a de-merger. Within hours, the company issued a statement saying "there are no plans to sell Chrysler."
In fact, Zetsche later acknowledged, the real debate over Chrysler was just beginning at his company. After the October conference call, he said last week, "we revisited our strategy for the entire group including the Chrysler Group." He added, "This was a process where we tried to understand better where we are and what the potential options are."