Britta Seeger meets Hildegard Wortmann: A conversation about driving fun, emancipation and strategy.

An extraordinary interview constellation: Britta Seeger, Member of the Board of Management of Daimler AG and Mercedes-Benz AG responsible for Marketing and Sales, met Hildegard Wortmann, Member of the Board of Management of AUDI AG for Sales and Marketing. Both talked with DRIVE, the car magazine of Stuttgarter Zeitung, about current challenges for sales & marketing, diversity and leadership.

From: DRIVE, Stuttgarter Zeitung Supplement, May/June 2020.
Interview: Mirella Sidro.
Photos: Philipp Mueller.

As members of the management board of Daimler AG and Audi AG, Britta Seeger and Hildegard Wortmann represent the growing number of female managers who are putting their stamp on the auto industry. A conversation about driving fun, emancipation and strategy.

DRIVE : Ms Seeger, Ms Wortmann, what was your first car?

Britta Seeger: My mom’s 1971 VW Beetle Cabriolet. The Beetle became mine two years ago. I am still working on restoring it, with a lot of care and attention.

Hildegard Wortmann: I had a bright green VW Polo. I paid for it myself back then by giving private lessons. You just had to have your driver’s licence and a car in front of the door on the day you turned 18.

And today?

HW: I am still a passionate driver. While I am not part of the mechanic fraction, I do love old cars and actually already rode along in the Mille Miglia race three times. As a member of the management board, I have the opportunity to draw on a large fleet and I seize this opportunity to test our models.

BS: I also like to keep driving different vehicles and prefer to travel by car when I can. And I continue to be a passionate cabriolet enthusiast.

What effects do you think will the COVID-19 crisis have on the auto industry?

HW: All major crises have one thing in common: they make people stick together, look for solutions in creative ways – and in this way often result in certain developments picking up speed or entirely new avenues being discovered. This is also true for the COVID-19 crisis, which has massively further intensified the megatrend of digitalisation – and not only in the auto industry. In order to stay in contact with our customers, we have focused intensively on our digital tools and services over the past weeks and months. We will continue to push forward with this strategy towards digital business models.       

BS: The pandemic has accelerated the use of digital technologies among our customers too. Together with our retail partners, we have stepped up our existing online offerings and that has been well received. The focus will be even more strongly on digital channels and contactless services.           

HW: Apart from that, it is important to me to maintain open and transparent communication in our “no-contact” contacts with my colleagues and partners around the world, to give courage and always to provide an outlook on our shared future.           

BS: I feel the same way. We can only master the current challenges collectively, as a team. The situation has also shown us that individual mobility is and remains a highly precious commodity. Of course, we will continue to engage in the public debate on sustainability and carbon-neutral mobility as before.

The industry was undergoing a major transformation even before the crisis. How can you inspire the customers in future?

BS: I can still tell you precisely which model I was driving at what stage of my life. I am not alone in feeling that cars express an attitude towards life. It’s the emotional excitement that plays a major role for customers when they buy a car. However, we are currently also experiencing a transformation. Take me, for example: I have triplets, who are now coming of age. They have comprehensive access to local public transport, night bus services, car sharing, an infrastructure we didn’t have before. All of those can be reasons to not own a car until later in life, when personal circumstances change. Satisfying the mobility needs of customers will therefore continue to be a highly individual process in future as well.       

HW: I experience the current upheavals as an opportunity for our brands. A premium vehicle is rarely about the mere transport need. It is about that something extra, as I have said: about an attitude towards life. Emotions will always be an argument for owning a car.

Cars therefore will become more of a status symbol again?

HW: Perhaps rather a place for special experiences. There are statistics on how much time we spend in the car, and they indicate that, if anything, this is on the rise. Shaping this, with design and services, represents great business potential for us, especially in the area of connectivity.

BS: The megacities place heavy demands on us with regard to the mobility of our customers. I experienced this myself when I lived in Seoul and in Istanbul and spent hours stuck in traffic. There is a lot of room for emotionalisation there and, especially then, it is important that customers feel absolutely comfortable in their cars.

How important will the local dealership still be in this process?

BS: I am convinced that the personal experience of a brand is a key strategic factor, especially in a digitalised world. Over 80 percent of customers still want to get advice in person and take test drives. What will retail look like ten years from now? A lot will change; we see that already in terms of customer behaviour. Anyone who signed a purchase contract in the past visited the dealership up to eight times before doing so – today it’s only once or twice. It goes to show that digital components are becoming more important when buying a car. 

HW: When the platforms are becoming more digital on the one hand, the personal interaction counts for more on the other. There is this wonderful new term “phygital” – the amalgamation of physical and digital. It must become a single entity and it must exhibit a compelling brand identity in the eyes of the customers.

Let’s talk about target groups: What roles do women and men play here? It is often said that women ultimately make the decision to buy a car.

HW: We no longer see the division of roles in this form. It is not primarily about gender, but about needs, about mindsets. And about generations. It is crucial that we inspire progressive people who consider it important to use digital channels and new forms of mobility.

BS: What I think is fascinating is that, generally speaking, women attach less importance to a huge selection and complex features than men. Instead, for them it is important that the car saves them time and enriches them emotionally. Time is of the essence – that is the most interesting difference I see today.

What leadership qualities are especially important in the industry in these times?

HW: As a member of the board, I have to ask myself: Why am I doing this job and what customer benefit does it bring? I am a big fan of the “unboss” philosophy, that is to say, the pursuit of new corporate cultures that depart from old hierarchical notions. For this, we need diversity, the ideal of co-creation – and preferably on an international basis.

BS: Especially during the transformation process it is important to work with shared beliefs, that is to say, with a foundation of values that all can agree on. In the past, we used classic strategy processes, which is no longer possible today. We need the input of young people. While we managers have the experience, we do need the disruption caused by new ideas.

HW: An integral part of my agenda are meetings or chats with the young talents, without their supervisors being present. The new young minds are my rock stars! I consider it a privilege to be able to have this interaction and to create something new with the young crew.

Automakers have always been rather dominated by men. Where do you see the challenges here with regard to diversity and gender equality?

BS: I have been with Mercedes-Benz for 30 years. Today, women account for almost 20 percent of the management positions at Daimler worldwide. But yes, when you look solely at the quotas, it is a world rather dominated by men. Notwithstanding the above, I am able to provide a lot of momentum here. If ever I have been unable to make any headway in certain situations, it was not because of my gender, but because my arguments were not convincing – simply a natural competition. I try to tell young women to be authentic, to focus on their own strengths and not to fixate too much on the issue of gender from the outset.          

HW: We can use our positions to act as positive role models. The business is no longer a metal-bashing industry. It is evolving more and more into a high-tech business. The old handed-down man-woman formula is no longer important there. Rather, it is the interest in new media and in digitalisation that plays a role, and that is not gender-related. Thirty percent of our trainees are female these days, we have had a second woman on the board since April, and so on. There are a lot of things in motion. Is it going fast enough? No. Do we have to do more? Yes, we do. But I see things in a significantly more positive light than just a few years ago.

Finally: Who would you want to have as a passenger on a car-sharing trip after the end of the coronavirus crisis?

HW: I am always delighted by inspiring conversations and consciously also seek interaction with people who have absolutely nothing to do with the auto industry. Of course, I would want this encounter to be open and between equals – and for us to learn from each other in the process.

BS: My family and I vacationed in Iceland a few years ago. We regularly picked up hitchhikers and each one of them was an absolute enrichment. What I don’t necessarily wish for: a passenger with a negative attitude overall. I am a big fan of looking forward and staying curious – in the positive sense.