by Gregory Simpson

MERCEDES-BENZ: STAYING AHEAD OF THE PACK

The German marque has been quietly solidifying their place as a premium supplier of commercial and luxury vans over the years, which is represented in the global success of their Vito, V-Class and Sprinter offerings

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The commercial van market in South Africa has often been overshadowed by the ever-popular bakkie segment, while in places like Europe; vans dominate, perhaps due to the poor weather. But Mercedes-Benz has an answer to the bakkie market as well, in the form of the innovative new X-Class, which combines the luxury of a Mercedes-Benz interior with the rugged exterior of a pickup.

Meanwhile, their luxury van division has been a roaring success over the years with executives, dominating the upper end of the van market in many regions, including Africa.

One of the keys to their success locally has been the leadership of the Vice President of their vans division, Nadia Trimmel, who is an expert in the field.

In 2014, Trimmel joined Mercedes-Benz South Africa (MBSA) as the National Sales Manager (vehicle sales and after-sales), bringing a new dimension of inspired leadership and competence, whilst climbing the corporate ladder to the position of Vice President at the beginning of 2017.

She is the new breed of leader who enables her staff to reach their potential. “From a leadership-style perspective, it’s definitely an interactive open-door policy that I encourage. In terms of principles, it’s dealing with people rather than managing, and that’s the best way to get people to take full accountability and empower themselves to actually grow versus managing output.”

Adapting to change

For Mercedes-Benz, being a leader in the automotive space, it is essential that the company stays fluid and is able to adapt to change in order to remain on top.

Trimmel acknowledges that MBSA is keeping up with the times and changing methodology where needed.

“You would see that Mercedes-Benz was actually going through a bit of a transformation in a sense recently—you might have seen online all the heightened activity around Leadership 2020 and this is really a turnaround in terms of moving forward as an organisation, moving with the times, to our change in customer environment and this has also led to a change in the way we operate, lead and engage with each other internally. So, it’s really moving ahead in terms of what our customers expect and this is encouraging a culture of open interaction, having crucial conversations, getting feedback on a 360 basis and really pushing the agendas of complete accountability, empowerment, and transparency in the organisation.” she insists.

Customers’ needs are changing year-on-year, which is accelerated by the explosion of technology and social media. We are seeing autonomous driving coming closer to reality and enhanced telematics potential, which saves time, money and often lives by promoting betting driving.

“Everything is going digital these days, which means we need to be a lot more agile and responsive in the way we do things internally in order to get back to our customers or react to their needs in the environment that they prefer. In terms of decision-making, we are a lot quicker because we have a much more impatient, less tolerant customer base going forward, where things happen in real time and this has meant we have to change internally when it comes to certain processes, simplifying it a lot,” Trimmel says.

With any large multi-national company, some of the decision-making is taken by head office. So how much say does the SA office have in the direction of local operations?

Trimmel explains, “As a wholly-owned subsidiary of Daimler, we operate within the guidelines of our parent company, but a lot of it is adapted in terms of what the regional requirements are. It’s very customer-centric in terms of what makes sense for our customers, so a lot of our decisions are based on what our market needs are locally, but we obviously take guidance, especially when it comes to compliance, where the Daimler guidelines will override anything. However, we have a lot of flexibility in terms of responding to our customers, as long as it is within those guidelines.”

Pioneering spirit

Trimmel represents a growing number of women in top leadership positions in South Africa, as greater workplace equality and transformation begins to show fruit. It is refreshing to hear that it is not only at a boardroom level that greater parity is being enjoyed; more women are getting involved at the shop-floor and assembly levels too.

“Yes, from our production facility in East London, as an organisation we are focused on transformation and that is seen, and it’s driven from Daimler in Germany into the market. In South Africa, for instance, we have the Mercedes-Benz Learning Academy, which was the first multi-racial centre that was opened in the country—it transcends all forms of diversity, including gender and race. We have definitely focused on diversity and transformation on a much bigger scale,” Trimmel says.

She continues, “Our National Sales Manager, Natasha Jardim, is also a woman, which is one of the prominent roles in the industry and we’ve recently appointed our first female mechanical intern in our technical team.”

Automation

However, as technology improves, we are seeing more automation at an assembly level, which could have a job loss component if not managed properly. But Trimmel explains how that effect can be mitigated with re-skilling.

“In many instances, we can automate and digitise but at the end of the day, we still need the human capital of any organisation to drive it, so it means that the role of our employees are evolving rather than people being replaced by automating processes,” she says.

East London’s gem

The Mercedes-Benz plant in the Eastern Cape is an incredible economic driver and vital employer for East London, an under-achieving city that is often lacking in sustainable development.

Mercedes-Benz enjoyed favourable sales figures for 2016 for their light commercial business but 2017 has proved a challenging time for the greater automotive industry, with few segments showing an increase in volumes in 2017. But with the news of SA coming out of recession, for now, things are looking up.

Outlook 2018

Trimmel reflects, “On the back of the conditions in the country we do have some challenges, like any organisation, whether large or small operating in the South African context. But we are still optimistic and if we respond to our customer’s needs, to facilitate more affordable options for them to access vehicles for example. We work closely with Mercedes-Benz Financial Services, and the economic conditions are tough but we try to adapt and capitalise on opportunities.

Exciting new X-Class

The new X-Class has been all the talk in the bakkie world, which has become very hot property since its world premier in Cape Town in July, as the German brand boldly enters into this hotly-contested market for the first time. But make no mistake; they are no strangers to 4x4s, with their iconic G-Wagon dominating the high-end serious off-road market.

“Yes, it has had a great response from obviously the media writers and then the public in general, so we have a lot of interest expressed from customers and we are doing all our in-house work to make sure we address the great demand that seems to exist just with the little snippets of information that’s been out in the public domain over the last couple of months,” she concludes. 

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