AUTO MARKETING;MERCEDES' HOPES HINGE ON MAN IN ARGYLE SOCKS

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On a stage of dark-suited Mercedes-Benz executives, one man is wearing a light sports coat and loud argyle socks.

Among the dour faces of German officials, he is trying to suppress a laugh, cracking jokes while a member of the board makes a point about currency exchange rates.

Andreas Renschler is the new generation of Mercedes-Benz.

GLOBAL MARKETING

Mr. Renschler, 38, is president-CEO of Mercedes-Benz U.S. International, selected three years ago by Mercedes' late Chairman Werner Niefer to lead a new global marketing effort to attract new buyers to the Stuttgart carmaker.

An executive with no manufacturing or marketing experience, he's charged with overseeing the design, development, manufacturing and marketing of the Mercedes AAV sport-utility-a risky product Mercedes is investing $1 billion to develop.

AAV is like nothing Mercedes has ever done. Directed squarely at American baby boomers, it will be a sporty, head-turning four-wheel-drive competitor of the Jeep Grand Cherokee, sold at roughly the same price.

It will be built in the U.S. -something Mercedes has never dared to do-using a new workforce and new manufacturing techniques under the guidance of a new management team. The factory project near Tuscaloosa, Ala., is Mr. Renschler's first manufacturing role.

FREE OF INTERFERENCE

When the vehicle debuts next year, it will be marketed globally by Mr. Renschler's team-independent of Mercedes' big North American sales subsidiary. Mercedes' agency Lowe & Partners/SMS, New York, has been awarded the AAV global account.

Mr. Renschler will be on the line for delivering to the world a car that Mercedes has no experience building and no experience marketing. So who is this guy?

SOUNDS LIKE A BOOMER

Mr. Renschler sounds uncannily like a baby boom-age consumer he will probably sell to in the U.S. A science-fiction buff who admits to cranking up Suzi Quatro when nobody's around, he eschews the golf course in favor of the ski slope. He prefers California wine to German beer.

He worked his way through school on the family farm in Ditzingen, Germany, raising cattle and beets. His father rewarded him on his 18th birthday with a new Volkswagen Beetle, which Mr. Renschler quickly traded for a used 220 SE Mercedes with bad brakes.

LEAVES FARM FOR CITY

Andreas went off in search of fortune, landing with a degree in economic engineering at Hewlett-Packard's German subsidiary.

He moved to Mercedes' parent company, Damiler-Benz AG, in the data management department. A year later he was appointed to the chairman's staff, and two years after that, put in charge of an internal project to develop a light-truck strategy for Mercedes.

In 1992, Mr. Renschler headed up another project to evaluate the feasibility of Mercedes getting into the four-wheel-drive market.

"All of Mercedes was on the move," Mr. Renschler recalls. "They were changing strategies, changing their ways and their ideas. It was a more conservative company before-not now."

"It was not normal in the past that such a young man would get this much responsibility," observes Mercedes spokesman Christian Dau.

"There is a feeling here," he says, "that a revolution is going on at Mercedes-Benz, and Tuscaloosa is the symbol."

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