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Mercedes Benz: could you fall in love with them?

Andrew Frankl
European Bureau Chief

If Mercedes Benz had run an advertising campaign on the "Fall in love" theme 25 or 30 years ago people around the world would have collapsed laughing at the very idea. Miserable taxi drivers in diesel taxis at Frankfurt airport, extremely arrogant big fat tycoons pushing you off the fast lane of the autobahn, aging film stars trying to in and out on big occasions and, let's be honest, a pretty straight-laced, humourless management in Stuttgart about whom journalists made countless "ve hef veys" jokes over the years.

Oh boy! Have things changed!

I had a chance to interview at length third-generation Italian-American Steve Rossi at the launch of the new CLK the other day in Santa Monica is this is what he had to say in his role as General Manager-Corporate Communications.

TACH: Steve, tell us a little bit about yourself.

SR: Well, basically I am an engineer turned PR guy. I am having a lot of fun with Mercedes-Benz because it is such a technically orientated company, so I think I can beat the drum and have fun doing it.

TACH: Where did you start ?

SR: I started as an engineer with Ford Motor Co where I was an engine designer. I've got a degree in mechanical engineering. Mr Henry Ford II was still there the time.

TACH: Didn't you move on to SAAB?

SR: Yes I did. Again, I started as an engineer, moved on product planning, EPA and all sorts of things.

TACH: Didn't you get involved with SAAB USA supremo Bob Sinclair in the Cabrio?

SR: Yes, I did. We had a situation where we could just not get enough cars in the early to mid 1980s. SAAB was booming, we needed more cars. The Swedish management said look, there is a small plant of ours in Finland, talk to them, see what they can do. So we went to see them and said OK, we'll take the cars as long as we can covert them into cabrios. Which we did.

TACH: You went to GM from there. Surely it must have been a bit of a culture clash after SAAB.

SR: Exactly the opposite. It was an incredible step along the way. I went there because GM bought 50% of SAAB. We moved the company to Atlanta when the phone rang and I was asked whether I would like to run the product communications department for Chevrolet. For me is was great, great opportunity. I moved from a company that was making 25 thousand cars a year that was building 2 and a half million!

TACH: Were you head-hunted?

SR: Not really, that was in the family. I had the Chevrolet cars plus the trucks plus Geo plus Nascar racing, pace car activities so it really broadened my base.

TACH: How did you get to Mercedes-Benz?

SR: The telephone rang. It was a head-hunter.

TACH: What happens on these occasions?

SR: The voice says you don't know me but we have an opportunity, we seem to think that you may fit the bill and so on. v TACH: Did they say who they were?

SR: No, but it wasn't very difficult to find out. This is a very small industry when you get involved with it.

TACH: Moving on to Benz I find it staggering that instead of three new cars in ten years you are now doing 10 new cars in three years. Someone somewhere must have pushed a button or something for all this to happen. It seems to have transformed MB into a global company.

SR: I cannot beat the drum for something I don't believe in so I went and looked behind the veil to see what they were doing, what they were planning. At that time it was spearheaded by Helmut Werner (very old friend of mine, I am one of his greatest fans. AF.) and I could see that he and his team were going after segments that were developing. Someone was going to go for them and clearly they thought why should it not be Mercedes-Benz?! I have seen manufacturers in my time who have said oh, no, that's not us, that's not who we are but time marches on and miss the market.

TACH: I can't help feeling that certain ideas came from the United States?

SR: Yes, the M class for instance. We are the home of the sports utility business, we were pushing for it very hard.

TACH: Are you not running out of engineers, are you not trying to do too many things at the same time? From bicycles to the experimental three wheeler to Smart, to A class, to CLK.

SR: No doubt that it is a challange. There is a lot going on. On the other hand don't forget that we are the oldest car car company on the planet, we have been around 111 years. We have a good idea what we are doing. We've got a bunch of very clever engineers who are maintaining our brand image and heritage. We are not going too far which would lose our mystique as Mercedes-Benz.

TACH: Are your dealers up to the challenge? After all they are not used to dealing with the sort of people who will be coming for the M class and hoping to trade in the sort of things most of your dealers would be seeing for the first time.

SR: This is a management issue. We are moving into new market segments and we need to train our dealers. I am sure we'll be able to do it after all it is more income for them!

TACH: You talk about becoming a global company. Are you concerned about the economic problems in the Far East?

SR: We do incredibly well in Japan but in reality we are not even a dip on the radar screen.

TACH: Steve thank you and good luck in the future.