Peter Honegg doesn’t conform to the stereotypical image of a hard-nosed, no nonsense, supremely structured German businessman. The self-proclaimed “abnormal German” says he is truly a gypsy at heart. “I don’t make plans in personal life,” he says, chuckling.
We meet at the Mercedes-Benz Café that overlooks lush lawns at the heart of the company’s 100-acre facility in Chakan near Pune. The only embellishment in the theme-based, minimalist lounge is the three-pointed star present in various forms such as at the counter, on the central table and on the wall adjacent to the sofa.
After a few minutes’ wait, Honegg strolls in. He greets me in a thick German accent, with a warm handshake and we camp on the beige leather sofa. His crisp white shirt, red striped silk tie and black trousers complement his freewheeling, candid style of communication, often laced with humour that makes us both break into laughter several times. It’s not surprising when he says he has made lot of friends—both in and outside the company in all the countries he has worked in. And he has worked in a lot of countries.
My first experience with Honegg and his wisecracks was in Mumbai some months ago when Mercedes invited reporters for an evening function to welcome him to the country. “My speech will be like a miniskirt—long enough to cover the bare essentials and short enough to keep the interest sustained,” he said then, as the respectful silence gave way to roaring laughter.
The default choice: Honegg is the third generation from his family to work at Daimler. His father and grandfather worked for Daimler for 44 years each. Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Honegg, 56, who has been with the company for 36 years, took over the reins of Mercedes Benz India Pvt. Ltd as the managing director and chief executive in January. He has come with a specific mandate—to revitalize and project brand Mercedes, which has been losing ground to rival BMW, as a sporty young brand for the hip.
Honegg is the third-generation family employee at Daimler Benz—a 125-year-old firm—with both father and grandfather having served the company for 44 years each, respectively. His tryst with the “three-pointed star” was more by default and not by design, he says, as he runs his fingers through his bushy white Einstein moustache, reminiscent of an era gone by.
As a young man who wanted to be a bioscientist several years ago, Honegg was reluctant to take the scholarship he got from Mercedes to do a master’s in business economics. He wanted to opt for biology in Stuttgart, his hometown in Germany.
But that was not to be.
“My father said, you study business for three years and then go back to university. But I eventually got sucked in,” he says.
Honegg joined Mercedes in 1976 as a salesman and there was no looking back after he moved to the export department in 1982. He says in jest that the lure of travelling across the globe drove him to the “family business”.
In the subsequent years, his job took him to several countries—from East Europe and Iran to North-East, South-East Asia and the Asia-Pacific, as he kept moving up the company ladder, straddling various roles within the firm.
In 1992, he was appointed regional director of Mercedes-Benz Iran, his first posting outside Europe. There was initial resistance from his wife Daniela, who was unsure how life would take shape away from the comfort of familiar surroundings. After a lot of persuasion and the promise of an opportunity to see a land they wouldn’t have otherwise, the Honeggs agreed to shift gears and move. Daniela loved the place so much that even before he had officially accepted the position, she got their two children enrolled into local schools. Thus began the Honegg family’s continuing Oriental sojourn.
Credited with turning around the Mercedes-Malaysia operations, playing a key role in expanding sales in the Asian region and making China the No. 1 market for the company in three years, Honegg is Mercedes’ Asia expert. Under his stewardship (2002-05), sales for the company in China catapulted to 150,000 units a year from 4,000-5,000. Malaysia started selling 5,000 cars a year, during his stint from 2006 to 2010, from virtually nothing.
Honegg is optimistic that India too will see similar growth trajectory, and emerge as one of the world’s largest markets for Daimler Benz in the near future. But he remains intrigued by the Indian market because, “it’s quite different from the breed I have known so far”.
“It’s important for me to know what the Indian customers want as I don’t think one size fits all.”
Daniela was not reluctant to move to India because a three-week visit to the Kumbh Mela in 2001 had given her an instant liking for the “world’s spiritual epicentre”. So when the offer to head India came by, Honegg says, in the last quarter of 2010, she couldn’t have been happier. Several years of work in Asian countries—including Hong Kong, Singapore, and now India—have made the Honeggs, particularly son Mario, fond of Asian culture. So deep is the influence on Mario that the 20-year-old chose a Malaysian university over an Australian one for his graduate studies in economics. His elder sister Marienne, 24, completes her father’s dream by pursuing biology in Germany.
Honegg’s next project is to give the brand a sporty perception in India which he plans to leverage with the Formula One (F1) connection similar to the way the Mercedes brand has been built in other Asian markets. Mercedes is the only other luxury car-maker associated with F1—its team is McLaren-Mercedes—besides Ferrari. He has already launched various models which conform to the new perception like the Maybach 57S & 62, Mercedes-Benz G 55 AMG, Mercedes-Benz SL 350 and Mercedes-Benz GL-Class 500.
“Our customers here do not recognize it as a sporty brand. Few know that besides Ferrari, we are the only company in F1,” says Honegg, who adds that India is known only for its three sports—cricket, cricket and cricket. He has already set his mind on selling F1 tickets through the company’s dealerships and catching consumer fancy as India gets ready to host the world’s most adrenaline thumping motorsport event for the first time in Delhi in October.
Come autumn, the wine aficionado also plans to brew his own wine. He wants to go plucking grapes from his friend’s vineyard near Pune. “I don’t like the wines available here. Some Indian wines give me a headache,” he complains, as he goes on to explain the intricacies of winemaking and invites me for a tasting session. “You will be the guinea pig,” he remarks mischievously.
Honegg’s wide range of interests—from golfing, motorcycling to architecture, books, love for wine, watches and cooking propelled by his love for chicken tikka and dal from Sher-e-Punjab, Pune— and his ability to leap from one subject to the other with dexterity, makes 1 hour and 45 minutes whizz past.
“What more can I ask for, I get paid to talk,” he says, laughing.
As the “gypsy” leaves for his next pit stop—his office—he appears to be in no hurry, strolling through the sprawling premises, with a philosopher-like air, his tie fluttering in the cool breeze.