An exclusive interview with President and CEO of Mercedes-Benz Malaysia
President and CEO of Mercedes-Benz Malaysia Dr. Claus Weidner talks about leading during challenging times
IT IS A GIVEN that 2020 was an unprecedented year. For those at the helm of companies, it was a daunting time requiring strong leadership to navigate through challenging times. A look at Dr. Claus Weidner’s resume and it would seem that the president and CEO of Mercedes-Benz Malaysia has had a lifetime of experience that would place him well to lead during a crisis.
“It was complex,” he says. “We had to safeguard our employees. We sat down with the crisis management team, looked at what we had to do, got things in place and worked towards saving the company.”
The strategy was successful and things went from being about survival to focusing on the way forward.
“You put a positive spin and motivate the team,” he explains. “It was not only about navigating but also about how we can get better. Everybody was motivated. There was a lot of communication to see what could be improved.”
His academic background and career history presents an individual who has had a diverse range of experiences that include studying in Japan and several stints in different key markets. All of which has given him the right perspective to understand these rapidly changing times.
“What I experienced,” he says, “is that when you are outside of your own country it gives you a different perspective from the other side and it teaches you to be flexible.”
It was unusual at the time, Weidner admits, for someone from Germany to consider studying in Japan. In the 80s, Japan was not really well-known from a German perspective. But Weidner who had started training in
Judo at the age of 10, had already developed an insight into the culture. It also gave him the opportunity to learn another language, a necessary requirement for his thesis which involved translating work originally written in the 18th century into German.
“It was very intriguing,” he says. “Japanese culture is very particular and they keep their tradition alive. And whatever they do, they really follow through.”
Weidner received his master of arts from the University of Tübingen in Economic and Social History of Japan and China and his PhD from the Ruhr University Bochum in East Asian, Economic and Social History, which was partly done in Japan. He was also a postgraduate research fellow at the University of Tokyo.
“When you do something in the social sciences, it gives you a different approach to things,” he explains. “You are thrown into cold water and have to learn. Even if you are doing a topic you are unfamiliar with, you start on one end and then work yourself through it. Also, there is the persistence of keeping at it because it is not easy, particularly when you are doing it in a foreign language.”
“You learn how to see things from a wholistic point of view and try to understand
the inter-connections,” he adds. “It has helped in business and certainly in management.”
Prior to completing his PhD, Weidner also obtained a diploma in Human Resources and a diploma in Business Administration. These qualifications ensured that he was placed to utilise his academic background in the business arena. When an opening emerged in the management associate program at Mercedes-Benz AG, Weidner decided to apply for the position.
“It was unusual,” he says, for someone with a social science background to climb the ranks of an automotive company. “It was not the straight way forward. It was a different approach but you can get there. Basically I also want to show my team that when you know where you want to go, you can basically put in the steps to get there. The process may not be straightforward but you can take the opportunity.”
His career at Mercedes-Benz has taken him to various parts of Asia, including as general manager of sales and marketing at Mercedes-Benz China, chief operating officer at Mercedes-Benz Hong Kong, CEO and president of Mercedes-Benz Indonesia. His current role in Malaysia also involves overseeing Singapore and Indonesia.
“Corporate strategy taught me a lot,” he states. “It gave me a different way of looking things.” Once assuming the position, one of the first things Weidner did was to create a sense of cohesion among the three countries.
“What we did was to create an identity for this region, comprising of a vision and mission,” he says. “We did it with the whole team.”
His experience in these key markets meant that Weidner was able to develop the necessary skills to look at things through an alternative lens.
“When you come into a new environment, you listen, you want to understand people and the overall picture,” he explains. “You meet different people and it is always a good experience to learn how they look at things. It becomes not just about your own way of doing things but also seeing where you can go in.”
When Weidner first assumed his regional role, his goal was to create an identity for the region. This comprised creating a vision and mission for the company. A structure was also put in place, with strategic points charting the growth of the business.
“This is a structure we have kept and every year we go through the topics, defining our priorities with strategic input from headquarters,” he explains. “It works pretty well from my perspective. Complexity is increasing and we have to have a guideline on what we need to do and what not to do.”
This approach also appeared to work well during the uncertainty of the previous year. He describes the situation as a speeding car coming to a screeching halt.
“Now you have to take the time to do things differently,” he states. “There is a saying to ‘never spoil a crisis.’ You have to take the opportunities. What is important is resilience, that you keep the motivation and give people the strength to be persistent.”
“WHEN YOU COME INTO A NEW ENVIRONMENT,
YOU LISTEN, YOU WANT TO UNDERSTAND PEOPLE AND THE OVERALL PICTURE. YOU MEET DIFFERENT PEOPLE AND IT IS ALWAYS A GOOD EXPERIENCE TO LEARN HOW THEY LOOK AT THINGS. IT BECOMES NOT JUST ABOUT YOUR OWN WAY OF DOING THINGS BUT ALSO SEEING WHERE YOU CAN GO IN”