Wolfgang Bernhard, a leader of the Chrysler Group's last corporate comeback, quietly returned to Auburn Hills on Thursday as a key player in Cerberus Capital Management's bid to buy the ailing automaker.
The visit to Chrysler headquarters was the second this week for Bernhard, who led a product renaissance during his three-year stint as Chrysler's chief operating officer, according to people familiar with the situation.
Bernhard is now working with New York-based Cerberus in its effort to win a three-way bidding war to acquire the U.S. division of DaimlerChrysler AG.
Cerberus is competing for Chrysler with rival private-equity firm Blackstone Group and Canadian supplier Magna International Inc. DaimlerChrysler is expected to pick one of the three soon to enter into exclusive negotiations, according to people familiar with the process.
All three bidders have sent study teams to Auburn Hills to meet Chrysler executives, tour its facilities and preview its future products.
A fourth interested bidder, billionaire investor Kirk Kerkorian, has yet to be allowed the same access to Chrysler's internal data and operations.
Bernhard was noticeably absent when Cerberus officials made their first on-site visit in March. But people close to Chrysler said the 46-year-old German executive met with Chrysler management last weekend and again Thursday.
"He walked right in the front door (Thursday) and went up to the executive offices," said one source who spoke on condition of anonymity.
A Chrysler spokesman declined to comment.
The presence of Bernhard on the Cerberus team, along with former Ford Motor Co. executive David Thursfield, has been viewed by some analysts as giving the firm an edge in the bidding process.
"It gives them (Cerberus) a tremendous amount of credibility," said Joseph Phillippi of AutoTrends Consulting Inc. in Short Hills, N.J. "I suspect there's a lot of latent loyalty to someone like Bernhard inside (Chrysler)."
Bernhard came to Chrysler in 2001 after running the Mercedes-Benz high-performance AMG unit at DaimlerChrysler. As chief operating officer, he was instrumental in the development of Chrysler's most recent round of hit products, including the 300C sedan.
His success at Chrysler won him a promotion in 2004 to run Mercedes. But after clashing with Mercedes managers and German unions, the job offer was withdrawn by DaimlerChrysler's supervisory board. Bernhard left DaimlerChrysler and was hired by Volkswagen AG. He resigned as head of the Volkswagen brand earlier this year after a management shake-up.