Christoph Weigler can still get into a taxi without being recognized, even though for about a month now he has headed a company that has the reputation in Germany of being a taxi bugaboo.
“We never deserved this image,” Mr. Weigler insists. Of course he has to say that – as the new face of Uber in Germany, a market that is particularly difficult for the $68 billion company.
Whereas in New York and London, the word “Uber” has become to be synonymous with short trips around the city, the American company serves only a niche within a niche in Germany.
Only 10 percent of all rides in Germany are organized via a smartphone. Uber doesn’t release official figures on how many rides it provides but industry insiders are sure it is far from the leader in a market dominated by Daimler subsidiary Mytaxi and taxi dispatchers apps.
Uber currently offers its services only in Munich and Berlin. Foreign visitors already familiar with Uber make up a considerable share of its customers.
There is a history to German skepticism over Uber. The company’s biggest enemy here is its own image. In 2013, when the American firm was planning to expand internationally, Berlin was one of its first targets. Someone familiar with Uber says, “We thought we would encounter a city with a start-up culture, so we didn’t expect to have any problems.”
Instead they faced a notoriously understaffed municipal administration and highly networked taxi lobby that made life difficult for the new competitor.
Mr. Weigler explains UberX using words Germans like to hear: “security,” “dependability,” “professional drivers” and “comprehensively insured.”
Uber trumpeted its indignation, fulminated against its expensive taxi rivals and complained about outdated legislation on conveying passengers. And it’s still paying the price for the management’s brazen attitude to this day. The taxi trade struck back with a counter-campaign, and the American platform was left with a reputation for not caring about workers’ rights or safety.
Mr. Weigler intends to reverse that image. The 33 year-old tends to wear an open-collared white shirt without a tie. Critics are met with a friendly smile. Mr. Weigler is an alternative to Uber’s founder Travis Kalanick. The nice guy addressing German fears.
Before transferring to Uber’s German headquarters in Berlin, Mr. Weigler managed its business in Munich. He knows how to explain to his colleagues in the United States why the expansion is taking so long in one of the most lucrative transportation markets.
Mr. Weigler is familiar with the start-up mentality. He worked in Silicon Valley for a year. But he also understands German sensibilities. As a consultant for Bain & Company and for Arthur D. Little, he advised German automotive giants on developing their own mobility offers.
In the meantime, Uber has come up with a business model to conform with the country’s law on passenger conveyance. When Mr. Weigler explains this offer, known as UberX, he uses words Germans like to hear: “security,” “dependability,” “professional drivers” and “comprehensively insured.” The offer is based on the use of rental car companies that can provide rides at around 20 percent less than taxis.
But there are still too few of these rental-car entrepreneurs in Germany to really offer a country-wide network. And strict legal requirements – such as an obligatory return after every ride, a test of drivers’ knowledge of local routes and a commercial license – assure that in coming years their number will scarcely rise.
Uber initially tried to kick-start instruction with its own courses and bonuses. But here as well, things didn’t proceed quickly enough. The low number of partners was one of the main reasons that Uber got out of Frankfurt, Düsseldorf and Hamburg.
So Mr. Weigler doesn’t have much commercial wiggle room. For this reason too, Uber is no longer talking about huge expansion but of improving existing offers. Over the course of the coming year, Mr. Weigler intends to offer a delivery service for restaurants called Uber-Eats. But there is already fierce competition between Foodora and Deliveroo in this sector in Germany. Extensive sales can hardly be expected.
The bitter truth is well-known at Uber headquarters. In Germany, the company scarcely has a chance at the moment with its most successful offers. German courts have outlawed the Uber-Pop service with which private drivers can offer rides at particularly favorable terms. The additional passenger service Uber-Pool, with which Uber customers can share a car, has also been blocked up to now by the German passenger-conveyance law.
The Americans are continuing the legal battle over Uber-Pop. “What’s at stake are fundamental legal issues,” says Mr. Weigler. “Uber-Pop is a model that we are no longer pursuing in Germany.”
“The taxi isn't our opponent.”
He is making a peace offer to the taxi dispatchers who have put up bitter resistance in past years. “The taxi isn’t our opponent.” The intention is to persuade people to give up their own cars and switch to alternatives. “We’re actually all pulling in the same direction,” he says.
This is also Uber’s message to local governments. In many cities, politicians are under pressure because of a rise in traffic and air pollution. Uber can use its technology to better coordinate supply and demand.
Whereas taxis spend 30 percent of their time waiting, Uber drivers operate at higher capacity utilization. This not only increases Uber’s profitability but also reduces the number of vehicles on the roads. Mr. Weigler is trying to use these arguments to persuade skeptics in local politics and administration.
The first fruits of this charm offensive are already apparent. CNetz, the organization responsible for the Christian Democratic Union’s Internet policy, recently called for rules to be loosened for digital ride providers such as Uber.
On Wednesday, the Monopoly Commission headed by professor of economics Achim Wambach spoke in favor of liberalizing the transportation market in Germany. The paper it issued said the provision of ride services only needs to meet “minimum requirements regarding the quality of drivers and vehicles as well as sufficient insurance protection.”
This would widen the playing field for Uber. Mr. Weigler knows that in the end, he just needs to be patience. Time is on Uber’s side. What’s important right now is improving the company’s image. To achieve a breakthrough in Germany, it’s more effective to smile than to argue. And Christoph Weigler’s just the man for that job.
Handelsblatt’s Lukas Bay writes about companies and markets. To contact the author: email@example.com