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[Reporter's notebook] A bad goodbye by Mercedes-Benz Korea chief

Outgoing Mercedes-Benz Korea CEO Dimitris Psillakis speaks during the 2019 Seoul Motor Show in Goyang, Gyeonggi Province, in this March 28 photo. Yonhap
Outgoing Mercedes-Benz Korea CEO Dimitris Psillakis speaks during the 2019 Seoul Motor Show in Goyang, Gyeonggi Province, in this March 28 photo. Yonhap

By Nam Hyun-woo

Outgoing Mercedes-Benz Korea CEO Dimitris Psillakis is taking a long business trip, at a time when the brand is being investigated by the prosecution for allegedly manipulating emissions programs in diesel vehicles.

Given his successor, Mercedes-Benz Sweden and Denmark President Bjorn Hauber, will begin his term on Aug. 1, and Psillakis has to spend two weeks in self-quarantine due to the overseas trip, the chances of him making a public appearance again as the head of Mercedes-Benz Korea are slim.

Raising a question is the timing of his departure from Korea.

Though Mercedes-Benz Korea did not clarify when he left Korea for the trip, he has been out of the country at least before May 27, because prosecutors conducted a search and seizure operation at the company's headquarters near Seoul Station that day over the allegations. At the time, Mercedes-Benz Korea did not clarify whether he will come back to Korea or not.

Given he had an interview with The Korea Times on May 11, he is assumed to have left Korea between May 11 and 27, and currently is in Canada because he was appointed as president and CEO of Mercedes-Benz Canada starting Aug. 1, Friday.

Initially, Psillakis was appointed as the head of sales and management at Mercedes-Benz USA, but that was changed apparently due to the U.S. H-1B visa ban.

Though it is uncertain whether Psillakis will return to Korea, he still has unfinished business with the country.

The Ministry of Environment fined Mercedes-Benz Korea 77.6 billion won ($64.6 million), May 6, after it ruled that the company had manipulated emission programs in 37,154 vehicles, including the C200d, it sold from 2012 to 2018. Along with the fine, the ministry filed complaints with the prosecution.

This was the largest fine imposed by the ministry against an automaker in the emissions-related Dieselgate scandal, surpassing the 17.8 billion won handed down to Audi Volkswagen Korea.

Raising more questions is the timing of Psillakis' appointment. Mercedes-Benz Korea announced the replacement of Psillakis, May 1, just five days before the ministry publicized its fine.

Industry officials are comparing Psillakis' trip to former Audi Volkswagen Korea CEO Johannes Thammer, who left Korea on a business trip before a hearing on the manipulated emissions tests of vehicles imported into the country in 2017, and did not come back.

Though the prosecution is cooperating with German investigators on repatriating him, the chances of Thammer returning to Korea are slim. Former Volkswagen Korea CEO Park Dong-hoon, who was indicted with Thammer, was sentenced to a two-year prison term in February this year.

Since Psillakis has been heading Mercedes-Benz Korea since 2015, he is responsible for Mercedes-Benz Korea's businesses during that time, but can avoid questioning or even a possible trial if he stays outside Korea.

Over Psillakis' trip, Mercedes-Benz Korea said it has "no relation at all to the investigation and the environment ministry's fines."

Psillakis' tenure in Korea was filled with fine moments. Under his leadership, Mercedes-Benz became the best-selling import brand with towering sales figures in recent years. The number of vehicles the brand sold last year grew 10.4 percent year-on-year to 78,133, which was No. 5 among all auto brands here.

He maintained a high profile outside of the company as the chairman of the European Chamber of Commerce in Korea and the vice chairman of Korea Automobile Importers and Distributors Association. Also, he became an honorary Seoul citizen in 2018 for "his great social contribution and investment" in the city.

This apparently gave him the position of Mercedes-Benz Canada chief, which is a bigger market than Korea. But at the same time there was criticism of his management styles, as aggressive discount policies became a burden for dealers.

As it is uncertain whether he will come back to Korea to face questioning, a bitter farewell between Korea and the Greek CEO seems to be inevitable.


Outgoing Mercedes-Benz Korea CEO Dimitris Psillakis speaks during the 2019 Seoul Motor Show in Goyang, Gyeonggi Province, in this March 28 photo. Yonhap
Outgoing Mercedes-Benz Korea CEO Dimitris Psillakis speaks during the 2019 Seoul Motor Show in Goyang, Gyeonggi Province, in this March 28 photo. Yonhap

By Nam Hyun-woo

Outgoing Mercedes-Benz Korea CEO Dimitris Psillakis is taking a long business trip, at a time when the brand is being investigated by the prosecution for allegedly manipulating emissions programs in diesel vehicles.

Given his successor, Mercedes-Benz Sweden and Denmark President Bjorn Hauber, will begin his term on Aug. 1, and Psillakis has to spend two weeks in self-quarantine due to the overseas trip, the chances of him making a public appearance again as the head of Mercedes-Benz Korea are slim.

Raising a question is the timing of his departure from Korea.

Though Mercedes-Benz Korea did not clarify when he left Korea for the trip, he has been out of the country at least before May 27, because prosecutors conducted a search and seizure operation at the company's headquarters near Seoul Station that day over the allegations. At the time, Mercedes-Benz Korea did not clarify whether he will come back to Korea or not.

Given he had an interview with The Korea Times on May 11, he is assumed to have left Korea between May 11 and 27, and currently is in Canada because he was appointed as president and CEO of Mercedes-Benz Canada starting Aug. 1, Friday.

Initially, Psillakis was appointed as the head of sales and management at Mercedes-Benz USA, but that was changed apparently due to the U.S. H-1B visa ban.

Though it is uncertain whether Psillakis will return to Korea, he still has unfinished business with the country.

The Ministry of Environment fined Mercedes-Benz Korea 77.6 billion won ($64.6 million), May 6, after it ruled that the company had manipulated emission programs in 37,154 vehicles, including the C200d, it sold from 2012 to 2018. Along with the fine, the ministry filed complaints with the prosecution.

This was the largest fine imposed by the ministry against an automaker in the emissions-related Dieselgate scandal, surpassing the 17.8 billion won handed down to Audi Volkswagen Korea.

Raising more questions is the timing of Psillakis' appointment. Mercedes-Benz Korea announced the replacement of Psillakis, May 1, just five days before the ministry publicized its fine.

Industry officials are comparing Psillakis' trip to former Audi Volkswagen Korea CEO Johannes Thammer, who left Korea on a business trip before a hearing on the manipulated emissions tests of vehicles imported into the country in 2017, and did not come back.

Though the prosecution is cooperating with German investigators on repatriating him, the chances of Thammer returning to Korea are slim. Former Volkswagen Korea CEO Park Dong-hoon, who was indicted with Thammer, was sentenced to a two-year prison term in February this year.

Since Psillakis has been heading Mercedes-Benz Korea since 2015, he is responsible for Mercedes-Benz Korea's businesses during that time, but can avoid questioning or even a possible trial if he stays outside Korea.

Over Psillakis' trip, Mercedes-Benz Korea said it has "no relation at all to the investigation and the environment ministry's fines."

Psillakis' tenure in Korea was filled with fine moments. Under his leadership, Mercedes-Benz became the best-selling import brand with towering sales figures in recent years. The number of vehicles the brand sold last year grew 10.4 percent year-on-year to 78,133, which was No. 5 among all auto brands here.

He maintained a high profile outside of the company as the chairman of the European Chamber of Commerce in Korea and the vice chairman of Korea Automobile Importers and Distributors Association. Also, he became an honorary Seoul citizen in 2018 for "his great social contribution and investment" in the city.

This apparently gave him the position of Mercedes-Benz Canada chief, which is a bigger market than Korea. But at the same time there was criticism of his management styles, as aggressive discount policies became a burden for dealers.

As it is uncertain whether he will come back to Korea to face questioning, a bitter farewell between Korea and the Greek CEO seems to be inevitable.


Nam Hyun-woo namhw@koreatimes.co.kr

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