BERLIN (Reuters) -- Daimler is grappling with the surprise resignation today of executive board member Andreas Renschler, who had been rumored as a potential candidate to succeed CEO Dieter Zetsche.

Renschler, production chief at the Mercedes-Benz luxury-car division, is leaving the company "for personal reasons" with immediate effect, Daimler said in a statement.

He will be replaced by Markus Schaefer, head of production planning at Mercedes passenger cars who used to run the carmaker's Tuscaloosa, Ala., plant and has more than 20 years of experience in car assembly, Daimler said.

"I very much regret that he (Renschler) is leaving the company for personal reasons," Zetsche said, noting Renschler's contribution to last year's launch of the Mercedes S-class flagship sedan.

Zetsche said Schaefer, 48, has excellent qualifications for his new post because of his "broad knowledge of our production business and international experience gathered from his positions in the United States."

A company spokesman said Renschler left for purely personal reasons, ruling out that possible dissent on policies within the management board or health-related matters played any role.

Daimler narrowed a sales gap with its German premium-car rivals BMW and Audi last year, thanks to a spate of redesigned compact vehicles. The Stuttgart-based manufacturer dropped to third place in the luxury-sales race behind Audi in 2011.

Renschler, 55, became Mercedes production chief last April. He had pledged to carry on with the efficiency program initiated by his predecessor, Wolfgang Bernhard.

Renschler oversaw the world's largest truck business for almost nine years, managing the division's investments in emerging markets such as Russia and India.

His work at the Mercedes car unit, which Zetsche leads, involved implementing efficiency measures at a division with a goal of cutting 2 billion euros in spending in 2014. Zetsche said this month that the automaker would meet that target early and might even exceed it.

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