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Mercedes India chief spells out his productivity mantra

Murali Gopalan | Updated on February 28, 2019 Published on February 28, 2019

Martin Schwenk wants the workplace to be more open while aiming for the sky

Martin Schwenk recalls an African proverb during the course of the conversation: ‘If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.’

As the Managing Director and CEO of Mercedes-Benz India reiterates, working together and tapping into the energies of people/resources are top priorities for any leader. “Sometimes you may want to go fast where everyone follows you but there is a risk that you may not last too long,” he says.

On the contrary, continues Schwenk, teams working together help open up individual minds and pave the way forward. “The way you work and live also determines how you think. Bringing down borders between groups/partners definitely helps in the cause of transparency and productivity,” he says.

It is just about three months since Schwenk took charge as MD and some of the changes are already visible at Mercedes-Benz India’s corporate headquarters near Pune. Brightly coloured walls greet you and there is a distinct open office feel with physical partitions now missing. There is also a greater sense of informality among the young workforce.

As Schwenk laughingly adds, there is perhaps less privacy now with fewer cabins but a lot more proactive energy in the workplace. In all fairness, this has been a work in progress for a while now as part of the Expedition 2020 vision plan intended at fostering greater team spirit as one of its many objectives.

“The key is to continue with this and strengthen the base. There is still potential which is not being fully leveraged in terms of working together in different functions,” says the MD.

He is absolutely categorical about the fact that cross-functional views must be encouraged and this is where different teams from production, finance and sales can brainstorm together. This will help make quicker decisions and get a larger view of any issue from different angles.

“Everybody may not agree but they will have a good idea of the goalposts and where we are as a team and move from there. There is no need for lengthy conversations later or convincing others about something,” reasons Schwenk.

Hierarchy

From his point of view, the next big challenge beyond Expedition 2020 lies in looking at hierarchy in a “more modern way”. This would mean further opening up of communication channels across functions and levels.

And even while parent company Daimler does not classify hierarchy levels globally, it is still important to acknowledge the “cultural context” prevalent in countries like India. Here, designations matter to people since it enhances their standing within their families and the work ecosystem.

This is a far cry from the radical approach to hierarchy in Silicon Valley where young CEOs are uber cool with their T-Shirts and colourful sneakers. It would be too much to expect something like this to happen in India (though this is not uncommon in Bengaluru’s startup space) overnight though change is in the air across some segments. “We have to eventually operate in the context we are in. It is important to take one thing at a time,” says Schwenk. This explains why even the move to go for an open office is a big step forward since it does away with a certain hierarchy structure and now promotes respect for competence.

Importance of diversity

The Mercedes India chief is also keen to improve diversity, be it gender or culture, at the work place to complement energy and resources in traditional teams. “I firmly believe that diversity creates better understanding and focus,” says Schwenk. Having people from different regions like Germany, Thailand and Vietnam enriches the environment of a company. Specifically in the production area, this helps even more since it means that people here in India are constantly liaising with global counterparts in Russia and South America.

More importantly, Schwenk is quite aware of the strengths present in the other two Daimler arms — Daimler India Commercial Vehicles in Chennai, the home for BharatBenz and Mercedes R&D in Bengaluru — which can be tapped from time to time. In late-2018, there was a joint CEO meeting of these companies in Chennai where they looked at areas of possible collaboration.

The idea is to repeat this exercise every quarter to improve transparency and communication.

Clearly, it is inconceivable to think of synergies between the truck and passenger car arms but this does not mean that there cannot be exchange of information while picking up tips along the way.

Perhaps this could also see swapping of competent people from one company to another though these are early days yet and there could be obvious reluctance in relocating from one city to another.

Comparisons with China

Schwenk is clearly enjoying every minute of his tenure here and is all praise for his team, which knows its “ropes well”. He has moved here from China, which is a far bigger market with sales of over 30 million cars annually. Mercedes itself has been averaging over 50,000 units each month, embarrassingly higher than India’s minuscule output.

Yet, Schwenk is not remotely deterred by these numbers and says comparisons between the two countries become difficult since everything is so different. However, what is common is their citizens’ aspirations in moving up the ladder and improving their lifestyles.

“The underlying engines are not different — energy, curiosity and aspiration are the same here and in China especially with youth power and higher education,” says Schwenk. In his view, there is energy coming from the younger and aspirational crowd in India too.

This is where it is important to position Mercedes as an aspirational brand to the larger masses of India by making it more accessible. Once this happens, he is hopeful that there will be more robust growth in the luxury car segment.

“Every society is developing/changing and we need to present the brand in India beyond just luxury as something aspirational which delivers value for the money spent on it,” says Schwenk. He believes that this is an aspect that still needs to be better leveraged.

While the Mercedes brand already has positives in terms of its design, network and initiatives in the digital space, there is still room to improve. As Schwenk says, the next task on hand is to reach out to a “broader audience” which goes beyond the predictable affluent class to those who aspire for premium and luxury products.

Attitudinal changes

This is where the used car business will play a role since its price tag is obviously more competitive. The company is working on other ideas in the mobility space keeping in mind that the dynamics are changing by the day.

For instance, says Schwenk, the pace of metro construction work across major Indian cities will have its own fallout when it comes to buying cars. He is upbeat about the fact that with traffic easing up with the metros, demand will grow since people can “actually use their cars better and more optimally”.

There will be a greater desire to commute in “your own car” especially for luxury brands which, the Mercedes India chief believes, are not likely to face the heat from reduced/shared ownership. This is a trend that is visible across the world with most youngsters in cities preferring the likes of Uber to actually buying a car.

Schwenk is clearly bullish on the road ahead for Mercedes, which could see bigger numbers gradually coming in as people queue up for luxury brands. Beyond this, his priority is to improve the bonding efforts within the Pune team, which could see some interesting dynamics emerge in the coming years.

Published on February 28, 2019
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