At the Shanghai Motor Show, Smart Automobile boss Annette Winkler drove a Smart Fortwo ultra-subcompact car onto the stage and screeched to a halt. She then hopped out of the ultra-subcompact car and did a little dance.
The two-seater is supposed to stand for agility, joy and cleverness, according to Smart’s ad campaign. All of those qualities also apply to Ms. Winkler, 55.
The chief executive’s goal at the Shanghai event in April was to entice Chinese people to embrace the cute little car made by the Smart division of Stuttgart-based Daimler, which is known for its luxury car brand Mercedes.
At the Shanghai Motor Show Ms. Winkler used her hands and feet and, ignoring the teleprompter, delivered a fast-paced speech that seemed to flow without commas or periods. Her appearance lasted two minutes. None of it seemed rehearsed, not even the sentences in Chinese that her advisors had worked into her speech.
“She is a tremendously ambitious woman who burns for her cause and knows how to push through her agenda with enormous energy.”
“I wouldn’t mind having what she takes in,” whispered a Mercedes manager as Ms. Winkler finished her appearance and, to loud applause, headed to the VIP stand. A place had been reserved for her between the Daimler’s chief executive, Dieter Zetsche, and the board member responsible for China, Hubertus Troska.
Giving her all, around the clock and seven days a week if need be, has brought Ms. Winkler far in the German automobile industry. Her position in the hierarchy of the Daimler corporation is only one level below the executive board.
If Ms. Winkler manages to make Smart a stable profit center, her place on the management board could no longer be denied, company insiders say. The only woman on Daimler’s eight-person board is Christine Hohmann-Dennhardt, who is responsible for integrity and legal affairs. The perennial money-loser and standalone product line Smart was absorbed into the Mercedes-Benz Cars division in 2006.
Ms. Winkler, a native of the city of Wiesbaden in western Germany, will soon have worked for Daimler for 22 years, about four of them as the boss of the small car brand.
Smart cars were conceived in the 1970s by Mercedes engineers as “part of a newly designed optimal transport system.” It was visionary from a technological standpoint, but not such a good idea in economic terms. The midget car has so far cost the company €10 billion, or $11.03 billion. This problem and challenge helped Ms. Winkler get the job in 2010. Mr. Zetsche had known for some time that she was an avowed fan of Smart cars.
“For me, Smart was always more than a product. Above all, I saw the concept behind it,” she said. When Mr. Zetsche wanted to make the small car division an independent product line again in 2010, he turned over the leadership to Ms. Winkler.
In a sense, she was the last resort. But now the tide has turned. Under Ms. Winkler’s leadership, Smart has become one of Mercedes-Benz Cars’ up-and-comers. In the first half of 2015, worldwide sales of Smart cars climbed by about 33 percent to over 62,000 vehicles. New models and Ms. Winkler are having an effect.
Friends and companions give these descriptions of Ms. Winkler’s impact: “She is an incredible bundle of energy. You can hardly catch your breath in her presence,” said a manager who has worked with her for years.
“She is a tremendously ambitious woman who burns for her cause and knows how to push through her agenda with enormous energy,” said another who knows her from the time she whipped a Mercedes-Benz commercial truck dealership in Brunswick into shape between 1997 and 1999.
As a woman, Ms. Winkler says she was in a tough position in the men’s world of Mercedes in the beginning. “A colleague once pointed out to me that dual tires are in the rear of a truck,” Ms. Winkler said.
She didn’t take such attitudes sitting down. In order to learn about technical issues and gain respect, the business economy graduate got her truck driving license in only nine days. “Instead of reacting by being insulted, you should face the challenge,” she said.
Ms. Winkler took on responsibility in the business world at an early age. Because her two brothers had no interest in her family’s Wiesbaden-based construction business, her father turned management over to her when she was 27.
Ms. Winkler said the fact that she “didn’t have the slightest idea how to build a house” intimidated her as little as the bad economic situation both in the construction industry and the family business. Despite solid sales figures, the firm was on the verge of bankruptcy.
Ms. Winkler threw herself into the task of turning the company around. She analyzed the numbers, introduced computer-aided job calculations, focused the business on the modernization and renovations of buildings and conferred openly with foremen and construction supervisors. A high level of sick leave was reduced through attendance bonuses, and she gained the commitment of key employees through company parties and training programs.
The young boss created a different company culture and also set tough goals: a growth rate above that of the gross national product and profits above the industry average.
Sales rose in the first year by almost 37 percent. An operating margin of 12 percent was achieved. The Winkler firm was soon doing so well that it took over an ailing construction firm in Giessen in 1991. The national press praised the “Wiesbaden model.” Champagne maker Veuve Cliquot named her “Businesswoman of the Year 1991.”
“It isn’t always easy with her, but it impresses me with how much dedication she is fighting for the smallest car in the corporate group.”
From then on, Ms. Winkler gave lectures nationwide on the evolving values in top management and good employee relations. She was invited to talk shows and, on the side, also took over a professorship for Corporate Governance and Personnel Management at the University of Applied Sciences Wiesbaden.
Mr. Zetsche, at the time Mercedes’ head of development, asked Ms. Winkler to tell 1,500 of his top people at the headquarters, Sindelfingen, about changes in the business world. She drove her red BMW into the Mercedes plant and made clear to the executives that a person’s self-confidence shouldn’t depend on the size of his or her company car. The audience was thrilled with her brash lecture.
“How can we only get you in the right make of car?” Mr. Zetsche asked her and promptly got this answer back: “Everything is subject to negotiation.”
Shortly after, she was presented to the head of Mercedes, Helmut Werner. After only one dinner together and although she had no media experience, he made her the head of communications. The new job radically changed her life; she doesn’t like half measures.
“What I do, I do right and with enthusiasm,” she said.
She turned over the construction business to two business managers — who, to her horror, drove the company into bankruptcy within a short time. She ended her teaching activities, and her second marriage became a weekend relationship. The car business has determined much of her life from that point on.
“I work for the company from Sunday evening to Friday evening. Saturday and 90 percent of Sunday belong to my husband and me,” she said.
Ms. Winkler is an avowed contrarian: “I hate explanations that begin with, ‘That won’t work.’” Thus, she needed some time to become orientated in a major corporation. Just as she had to get used to the company, the firm had to get used to her.
The e-mails that Ms. Winkler sends during her early morning jogs are notorious to company employees. Her instructions are supposed to be carried out by 8 a.m., an insider complained. “Otherwise things could get uncomfortable.”
When Ms. Winkler became the boss at Smart, the product line consisted of only a single car. Ms. Winkler, who was a bicyclist until she had a serious accident, had an electric bike developed in a hurry to create a little extra income for the Smart dealers. In addition, the build-up of a car sharing system called Car2Go helped to stabilize production in Hambach and keep the company above water.
Video: Ms. Winkler presented Smart cars at the Shanghai Motor Show.
But it wasn’t until the strategic cooperation with Renault-Nissan and the development of a common rear-wheel drive platform for Smart and Renault Twingo (Codename Edison) that a new momentum was created.
Ms. Winkler contributed a lot to bringing together the disparate company cultures and ending the disputes that continually broke out between the engineers at Daimler and at Renault. She used precise communication and conciliatory gestures to achieve better relations, but also by way of cooking events to which she invited her German and French colleagues. Ms. Winkler and the head of development at Renault, Ali Kassei, become friends through them.
The new generation of models has now been on the market since February. Two cars are even available with two and four doors, not only in Europe, but also in China. She is fine-tuning stylish special edition models together with Bodo Buschmann, the owner of Mercedes’ after-market finisher, Brabus. They often work late into the night. The Smart chief personally sees to the colors and the fabrics of the new Tailor Made line that is coming on the market shortly.
“It isn’t always easy with her,” said Mr. Buschmann. “But it impresses me with how much dedication she is fighting for the smallest car in the corporate group.”
And the commitment is having an effect. For the first time analysts think the original sales target of 200,000 cars per year is just as realistic as a decent operating profit. Friedrich Maier, business manager of the Smart Centers in Esslingen and spokesperson for the German association of Smart dealers is in good spirits: “The dry spell has finally ended.”
In particular, the expansion of the range of models is proceeding quickly. A convertible is coming in the fall and a version with electric drive next spring. There are persistent rumors that the Nissan Juke will be used as the basis for creating a Smart SUV — the decision to produce the Smart Formore could be made soon.
Ms. Winkler is far from running out of ideas: “There is no end to the possibilities we have.”
This article originally appeared in German weekly WirtschaftsWoche. To contact the author: email@example.com