German-born Thomas H. Klein is a President and CEO at Mercedes-Benz Korea. Prior to moving to Korea, Klein served a role as CEO at Mercedes-Benz Middle East © Jay Kim Salinger
“Gottlieb Daimler and Carl Benz invented the car in 1886. It was their imagination, which changed the world by providing freedom through individual mobility.”
How did you first join Mercedes-Benz?
(Thomas H. Klein, CEO at Mercedes-Benz Korea) I joined Mercedes-Benz or back then DaimlerChrysler AG in 1999 as a working student in the company’s dual study program. The program offered me to study in Berlin and at the same time work in various locations of the company in Germany and abroad. Among other assignments, I worked for a commercial vehicle plant, for the Formula 1 team and for our financial services subsidiary in Canada. So, I got really broad experience out of the program which I truly enjoyed having at an early stage of my career.
And how did you move to Korea and lead Mercedes-Benz Korea?
(THK) Over the 22 years of my career, I had developed a sound level of expertise in the automobile marketing and sales environment and I had proven that I could successfully lead independent companies abroad. I think this was a qualifying criterion. I was always willing to take on more responsibility and preferably also in the Asian market context. Still it was a big positive surprise, when I was offered to take on our South Korean business, as I had been the CEO of our Middle East operations for only about 18 month back then. I have not regretted the decision to move for a single day and I feel it is a big honour to lead a prestigious organisation like Mercedes-Benz Korea.
Please walk us through your typical day as a CEO of the company.
(THK) I am an early bird! My day usually starts with a joint family breakfast before my kids head off to school and I then make my way to the office. Since our headquarters is in Germany, I usually start my day with reading the mails that came in through the night, before my assistant and I talk through the meetings for the day. For lunch, I usually meet other decision makers or I go out with colleagues. In the evenings, I often attend dinner functions or – if time allows – I go for a run at Han River. That I should actually do much more often.
“For some unclear reason, I always felt that driving an electric car would mean some sort of compromise, but that is entirely wrong.”
What is your daily car and why?
(THK) For pretty much a year now, I drive the Mercedes-Benz EQS, our brand’s most luxurious electric sedan. It is the first time that I drive an electric car as my daily car and I have to say that this year was truly eye-opening for me. For some unclear reason, I always felt that driving an electric car would mean some sort of compromise, but that is entirely wrong. I also always considered “range” and “charging” as potential issues, but they are absolutely not, if you change your routines slightly. In addition, I never thought that I could enjoy a car without engine noise, but let me tell you that there is nothing as pristine as the blissful silence of the EQS. I will not go back to a combustion engine car anytime soon!
“There is nothing as pristine as the blissful silence of the EQS.”
Mercedes-Benz is launching new electric models- EQS, EQB, and EQE. What was the market response to these EQ models?
(THK) As a global company, we have committed to going electric-only by the year 2030 where market conditions allow and at last year’s Seoul Mobility Show, we as Mercedes-Benz Korea have shown our approach to turning this commitment into reality. The rapid introduction of our new electric products is testimony to our local efforts. Personally, I believe the electric models that we launched are very much designed to be at the intersection of new technology and aesthetic, modern, appealing design and thankfully, the market response is very positive. I’m very proud that we have brought so many portfolio elements to Korea already and we have bold plans for the new year to increase electric vehicles sales, confirming that we are to lead the electrification of our industry. To ensure this, we will continue to listen to customer feedback and study the needs of the market so that we remain the no. 1 customer choice in the electric era.
“Luxury has been part of our soul and our DNA. It ties together our values and virtues. It‘s who we are. It‘s what we do best.”
Mercedes-Benz has been the symbol of luxury cars for decades all around the globe. How has this positioning been altered or remained the same in recent years?
(THK) Our company’s founding fathers Gottlieb Daimler and Carl Benz invented the car in 1886. It was their imagination, which changed the world by providing freedom through individual mobility. Ever since these early days, luxury has been part of our soul and our DNA. Or as my marketing colleagues put it “Luxury ties together our values and virtues. It‘s who we are. It‘s what we do best”.
(THK) Of course, our brand and our understanding of luxury are constantly evolving. Our current strategic ambition is to build the world’s most desirable cars and that means that we want to provide our customers with an emotional experience based on timeless design, superior tech and attention to detail. A Mercedes-Benz should evoke desire, and give our customers the rewarding feeling of belonging to something special. At the same time, we believe that there cannot be luxury without sustainability, so we strive to further reduce and ultimately eliminate our impact on planet earth.
(THK) In Korea, we turn these ambitions into reality successfully. Mercedes-Benz is recognised as the Korean customers’ luxury automotive brand of choice for six consecutive years now and we have a very strong brand positioning for Mercedes-Benz as well as for the halo brands in our portfolio: Maybach, AMG, G-Class and Mercedes-EQ.
“The E-Class even got the nickname “Gangnam Sedan.”
Model E-Class has been the most sold imported car in Korea at one point, why do you think this model was uniquely appealing to the Korean market?
(THK) The E-Class as our exclusive mid-size business sedan model has gained a proud legacy with a most meaningful heritage and tradition in Korea over the past years, because it combines luxury driving experience and sophisticated appeal. Especially, the 10th generation of the E-Class has presented a dynamic exterior design, and a luxurious and comfortable interior with a combination of high-quality materials, and various convenience features that Korean customers prefer. The model also provides a powerful and efficient powertrain portfolio, and driving assistance systems along with safety and convenience features, which are state-of-the-art technology. We are very proud that the 10th generation of the E-Class as a result has been the no.1 selling import vehicle for the past five years with the total sales reaching over 200,000 units since its launch in 2016. Thanks to the huge affection of customers, the E-Class even got the nickname “Gangnam Sedan”.
And what do you think are the unique characteristics of Korean consumers compared to German or the rest of Europe?
(THK) I do not like making direct comparisons between countries and cultures. What I observe is that Korean customers have very sophisticated taste and fine eyes for choosing brands and products they want to engage with. This observation is proven in the results of our Mercedes-Benz customer research, where we find that Korean customers regard prestige image and reputation as key factors when they purchase new cars. I do not know much about purchasing patterns in other countries, but from my point of view, this is a special trait of Korean consumers and applies not only to the automotive industry but is widely relevant to many choices Korean clients make.
And how is the car culture different here?
(THK) Again, comparing countries and cultures is not my kind of thing, but I believe the Korean affection for luxury and super-performance cars of all brands is something that truly stands out. We see this when we look at the development of our halo brands over the past years, where consumer feedback is very positive. In addition, Koreans seem to love special and limited models that brands offer, as they allow for differentiation that is even more personal. To this end, we engage intensively with our headquarters to bring attractive products to the market. Lastly, the speed of adoption for new technology is something that also strikes me as particularly outstanding in Korea. It appears to me that Korean consumers are willing to explore new things rapidly and with a lot of comfort and joy.
“Seoul 2039 is a smart and sustainable city with a high quality of life.”
Going towards the age of Smart City, Seoul is one of the leading cities in that matter. How do you see the future of transportation in Seoul and in Megacities globally?
(THK) A few years back, Mercedes-Benz group had presented its vision of a smart and sustainable city of Seoul. It’s ‘Vision Seoul 2039’. Seoul 2039 is a smart and sustainable city with a high quality of life. Due to electric driving and air cleaning technology systems air pollution and fine dust issues are things of the past. To avoid traffic collapse, the entire transportation system had to be fundamentally transformed. Autonomous driving, car sharing, ride sharing, new modes of transportation and mobility services, and new infrastructure are additional building blocks for efficient and environmentally friendly mobility. Vehicles, buildings, and objects are intelligently linked to the urban infrastructure. The partly conversion of streets has resulted in new green areas. In this transformed environment, the car also takes on new tasks and services.
(THK) Looking at Seoul today, I believe the city is on a good track to become a smart city with intelligent transportation concepts in the not too distant future. Of all the cities I have lived in, it is certainly the most digital, the most connected, the most tech-savvy and – believe it or not – one of the greenest. I hope it will one day be the most livable and sustainable city that we all are dreaming of. As Mercedes-Benz Korea, we are striving to make our contribution to that vision.
“A car is a symbol of individual freedom, it is an expression of your personality, and it is something that may bring joy to you on a rainy day.”
The meaning of car and car ownership are becoming fluid, what is car to you and what is car to people in the future?
(THK) It is my personal conviction that a car is much more than a means of transport. A car is a symbol of individual freedom, it is an expression of your personality, and it is something that may bring joy to you on a rainy day. For me, that will not change even if car ownership models change. For me as a leader, this means that we need to continue working on our brand and on taking the brand and its products into the next century. Mercedes-Benz is and must be the promise of a better future. That’s why moving forward, we will keep on reinventing the original invention. I am very lucky that I can contribute towards that journey.