FRANKFURT (Reuters) - Three Daimler (DAI.DE) executives are seen as contenders for the top job if CEO Dieter Zetsche's contract is not extended in 2016, following the sudden departure of a senior executive who was a candidate for the role.
Andreas Renschler, head of manufacturing at its Mercedes-Benz Cars unit, is leaving the German luxury car and truck maker, and analysts say he may take a job at Volkswagen (VOW3.DE). His contract had been due to expire in 2018.
Daimler's Chief Financial Officer Bodo Uebber, Trucks chief Wolfgang Bernhard and China chief Hubertus Troska were favourites for CEO, Berstein analysts said in a note.
The succession issue had already become a thorny topic last year when the supervisory board extended Zetsche's contract by three years, instead of an expected five, to soothe investor concerns over failure to meet guidance and keep up with rivals.
But the Stuttgart-based manufacturer narrowed a sales gap with its premium-car rivals BMW (BMW.DE) and Volkswagen's Audi last year, thanks to redesigned compact vehicles, having dropped to third place in the luxury-sales race behind Audi in 2011.
And the lack of a clear successor may also favour the case for extending Zetsche's contract beyond 2016, analysts said. Zetsche remains head of Mercedes-Benz Cars, a division which includes luxury cars and the Smart brand.
"The latest move means Zetsche's position is uncontested," one Daimler employee, who declined to be named, said.
Zetsche said in a statement late on Tuesday that Markus Schaefer, previously head of production planning at Mercedes-Benz Cars, would take on most of Renschler's responsibilities.
Combined, VW's truck, buses and van units have 35 billion euros ($48 billion) of commercial vehicles sales, similar to Daimler, the world's No. 1 truck maker, whose commercial vehicles sales are about 44 billion, ISI Global analysts said.
"The question why Renschler is leaving is easy to answer. In our view his move from head of Daimler trucks to running Mercedes production was a step backwards," ISI analysts said in a note on Wednesday. "Volkswagen could be interested bringing in Renschler to run VW's trucks businesses."
Volkswagen declined to comment.
A Daimler spokeswoman said a termination clause Renschler's contract prevented an immediate switch to a competitor.
Shares in Daimler were up 0.3 percent at 1033 GMT, underperforming a 0.8 percent rise in the DAX (GER:^DAX). VW shares traded 0.5 percent lower.
Renschler took on his new job at Mercedes in April as part of a broader executive reshuffle, a move he was unhappy with.
At the time, Renschler switched jobs with Mercedes-Benz production and purchasing chief Wolfgang Bernhard, in a move that Daimler's chairman said would allow both men to showcase their potential.
Bernhard is still seen as a contender to get the top job at Daimler but his management style has met resistance among members of the company's powerful labour unions, which control half the seats on the supervisory board.
(Reporting by Edward Taylor and Ilona Wissenbach; Editing by Louise Ireland)