Roland Folger: Shifting gears

The head of Mercedes-Benz’s India operations on our loyalty to car brands, making their cars eco-friendly, and his Stuttgart beginnings

Roland Folger. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar /Mint
Roland Folger. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar /Mint

In appearance, Roland Folger, managing director and chief executive, Mercedes-Benz India Pvt. Ltd, is the stereotypical hard-nosed, no-nonsense German businessman. A dark-grey business suit, white shirt and red tie adorn his tall frame. But that image dissipates the moment you begin a conversation with him. Folger is affable and smiles often.

“I am still learning the ropes and trying to develop a deeper understanding of how things move here,” says Folger, 57, who moved to India from Malaysia just over 10 months ago. We are seated at a round table in his minimalistic office at Mercedes’ India headquarters in Chakan, an industrial hub 30km from Pune. The choice of a round table for visitors, as opposed to sitting across a desk, reflects his preference for a free exchange of thoughts. We call for some coffee—cappuccino for him and latte for me—and settle into an hour-long conversation.

Folger has had to learn quickly that business in India can be more unpredictable than it is in other countries. In December, following a recommendation by the National Green Tribunal, the Supreme Court banned the sale and registration of diesel vehicles with an engine bigger than 2,000cc in Delhi and the National Capital Region. That meant Mercedes had to stop selling four of its models in the region, which accounts for 20% of its total sales in India. Total sales in India for the first half of 2016 dropped marginally from the previous year, from 6,659 units to 6,597.

Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

The company did not let the ban dampen its spirits and has launched five new models in 2016, with seven more set to be launched before the end of the year. On 12 August, the Supreme Court lifted the ban on diesel cars and levied a green cess. Mercedes-Benz is still committed to making its cars more environment friendly, though, and Folger says the company is ready to meet the government’s Bharat Stage (BS)-VI Emission Standards well before the deadline of 2020. “I am glad the diesel ban is behind us,” Folger says. “We have the technology and we now need the compatible fuel to introduce our BS-VI range of vehicles. Introduction of BS-VI technology is going to make a long-term positive impact.”

So, he is now charting the next phase of growth for Mercedes in India. The company has grown quickly in the past four years, going from 7,138 units sold in 2012 to 13,502 units in 2015, making it the biggest player in the luxury car market. The introduction of several new models has fuelled this growth. Now, Folger believes the company should become “more customer-focused”.

He has been travelling extensively, meeting dealers and key customers to get feedback on the company’s after-sales service.

He has worked for Daimler AG, the automotive company that owns the Mercedes-Benz brand, for more than three decades and has held myriad positions in various countries. In January 2015, he was appointed vice-president of sales, marketing and after-sales of Mercedes-Benz US International in Tuscaloosa, where he was part of the team that introduced the first M-Class. In 2006, he joined the Mercedes-Benz Vans division as head of product management and marketing communication and, two years later, took charge of sales worldwide. Before he came to India, he had spent over five years as president and chief executive of Mercedes-Benz Malaysia.

"IN PARENTHESIS: Folger, a foodie, has been cooking since childhood. After stints in Thailand and Malaysia, he is fond of spicy food and enjoys all Indian food, especially from Rajasthan and Punjab. He loved using an analogue camera for his photography and would print his own photographs, but that passion has died with the onset of digital photography"-

He is usually even-tempered, but there are a few things that irk Folger. “I really have a problem if people shirk their responsibilities,” he says. “They come to you explaining something cannot be done way too late, when there’s no time to take a countermeasure. That is when I have an issue. Be open and communicate.”

Born and brought up in Stuttgart, Germany, Folger is the eldest of three siblings. After finishing college, he contemplated joining a bank. “Not because I loved numbers or accounts, but because I loved the idea of interacting with people across the counter.” But before he could, in 1979, he received an offer from Mercedes-Benz that would allow him to work and also pursue higher studies.

“I was lazy and never really worked or studied hard,” Folger says. “Actually, you can be lazy and still be responsible. Lazy people were the inventors of all good things in the world as their innovation made other people’s lives easier.” It was his father who instilled in Folger a sense of responsibility, and he has now passed that down to his daughters, Charlotte, 25, and Friederike, 19, and his son, Sebastian, 23.

Despite a demanding schedule, Folger manages to pursue his passion—reading books, a hobby which, he says, supports his laziness. “I have close to 200 books downloaded on my electronic readers.” His reading list comprises travelogues, especially old ones, science fiction novels and crime novels set in the early 1900s. He carries his Kindle on all his travels. Folger believes reading helps one understand better how people’s minds work. “The authors end up baring their souls and lend a very different perspective.”

Travelling and golfing are other hobbies Folger and his wife, Suzanne, a doctor he met at a nightclub through common friends in 1982, enjoy together. But he stays away from the popular tourist attractions, instead trying to meet people and gain insights into their culture and traditions. Ask him about his ideal vacation and he says, “I am a Maldives kind of person—sailing, driving, reading and, of course, lots of good food.”

Since taking charge of Mercedes’ India operations, Folger has travelled extensively across the country, mostly to inaugurate new dealerships of Mercedes-Benz and meet customers.

Folger finds Indian car buyers much more brand loyal than those in other markets. In 2015, Mercedes introduced a buy-back programme. In no time, it realized Indians simply don’t sell cars, particularly luxury ones. They keep them in the family. “It’s unique to India,” Folger says.

One thing that does scare him about India, though, is the chaos on the roads, a world away from the organized traffic on German highways. “It’s a bit scary how there is lack of discipline on the roads as it may lead to road fatalities, and many times, I read, it does,” Folger, who drives a Mercedes-Benz S 500, says. “We have to create a lot of awareness regarding discipline among vehicle users. Off the roads, I find a very high level of commitment to discipline in everyone I interact with. Everyone respects your time.”

The luxury car market here is in flux, Folger says, with young buyers believing they deserve to spoil themselves. Values, he thinks, are also changing. It is this change that Mercedes is tapping into. “It’s necessary,” he says, “for an organization to constantly reinvent itself.”