Passion is the key: Interview with Wilfried Aulbur, MD & CEO, Mercedes Benz India

The name Mercedes-Benz conjures images of luxury, comfort, quality and style in our mind. Dr WILFRIED Aulbur, MD & CEO, Mercedes-Benz India, takes us on a ride to reveal his personal and professional side. He talks about making choices in life, being passionate about work, staying healthy and active, having happy relationships and much more. In conversation with MANOJ Khatri...

blankManoj Khatri [MK]: At Complete Wellbeing, we believe that freedom of choice is inherent to happiness. What’s your opinion about this? Can you share some of your life’s experiences about making choices and exercising this freedom?

Wilfried Aulbur [WA]: Freedom of choice is essential for everybody’s well-being. Nobody wants to be in a situation where he or she is held hostage and cannot exercise free will. For me, it is one of the most important ingredients of a fulfilled life. You simply don’t want to be in a situation—be it in your relationships, your career, or choice of brands—where you have no choice. The feeling of being trapped or forced to do something that you don’t like, or being with somebody who you don’t want to be with is extremely detrimental to your health. For me [and I suppose this is valid for most people], even if you like your current situation, it is still nice to have a choice. Having the confidence that comes with feeling “Yes, I have a choice” empowers you with a certain amount of personal freedom or independence, which I think is beneficial for your attitude towards work and performance. Moreover, the feeling of being in control of one’s own destiny is very important to our self-esteem, and self-esteem is very important for our wellbeing and happiness.

Take personal relationships, for instance. It is nice to be married—or to have a relationship—with the person you love and want to be with. At the same time one should always have the option, the freedom to walk away—it helps bring a balance in relationships. Yes, there can be a situation where a person is totally dependent on the other, but that is not good. In my opinion, it is better to be in a situation where each partner has a certain amount of flexibility, as this ensures that both put effort in making their relationship work and neither takes it for granted.

So, coming back to your question, it is nice to be conscious about the choices that you make. I think the most important thing is to have the freedom to choose from several options, so that one evaluates the options and then decides which one to take and how to move forward. But that does not mean that once you have made a choice, you are stuck with it forever.

MK: What drives your choices in your life—professional and personal? Is there a philosophy you follow or do you go by your instincts at the time of making the decision?

WA: I don’t know if it’s a philosophy, but I am constantly looking for opportunities and challenges. When I am faced with choices in my life, I constantly look for a number of characteristics in the choices given: Is the opportunity exciting and enriching? Is it the right thing to do? Can I make a difference? Is it in tune with my value system—fairness, openness, teamwork, passion, performance? I like engaging in new activities that are exciting and where I can learn and grow as a person. So that is what drives me in making choices in my professional life.

As far as my private life is concerned, all the choices are deliberated and discussed with my wife and then we usually come to a common decision and move ahead.

However, since you don’t always have an opportunity to evaluate everything in detail, you have a fair share of decisions based on gut-feelings.

MK: Was your joining Mercedes a conscious career choice? What made you join this company?

WA: Yes. Clearly I wanted to be part of an international organisation whose vision and innovation has shaped and continues to shape the future of human mobility. At the time of joining, we were not only doing cars, buses and trucks, but had significant presence in aerospace and railways too. We also had activities in various IT-related and research-related fields. So, the pleasure of working in a company that offers you a broad range of opportunities and also a broad range of geographies to work in, definitely was something that attracted me to Mercedes Benz.

Even today, working for an automotive company is very exciting. We must meet some very dramatic challenges to live up to our vision of sustainable mobility—i.e., human mobility with no or at the very most a negligible effect on the environment—and accident-free driving. At the same time, our vehicles and our organisation need to continue to communicate passion for performance and exhilaration to our customers.

MK: How long have you been with Mercedes?

WA: 10 years now.

MK: So how’s the journey been so far?

WA: It’s been very exciting. The learning and the relationships that I have been able to build over the last 10 years have been particularly enriching. I actually got the opportunity to work in various areas that we have in the company. I worked in R&D, IT, passenger cars, aerospace, HR, marketing and sales. It’s been a varied experience in terms of the kinds of things I got to do and the kinds of countries I got to work in—US, Germany, France and India—which was fun. I like the challenge of going into a different environment, working in a totally different setting in a totally different country, and figuring out how to make things work.

MK: Can you name one personal value that helped you cope with pressures of challenges in different settings and countries?

WA: My main driver is passion. I have to be passionate about the task and the people that I work with. Once you have that passion, typically what you find is that you build teams in various locations in one network. If you look at our world today, it is highly complex and fast-moving. What that means is that you always have to work with other people, value their inputs, build on their experiences, and then come to a conclusion in terms of how you want to move ahead. I think that is an approach that has helped me quite a bit in terms of succeeding in very different circumstances.

Coming back to your question, I have to feel passionate about what I do. I have to feel that I can make a difference to the brand and this is same for everybody in this organisation. We are happy to have large number of employees that are dedicated to their work, feel that their work is rewarding, feel that they can have an impact and can make a difference and I think at the end of the day, that is what gets you out of bed every morning. Money is necessary, but not the only driver. We spend so much time at work or around work that we must really enjoy it. And enjoyment comes from the tasks and the people you work with.

MK: That brings me to an interesting issue of staff welfare. According to the World Economic Forum, wellbeing initiatives at workplace have a direct impact on the bottom line of companies – through lower absenteeism, higher productivity, better staff morale and such other benefits. What has been your experience at Mercedes? Can you answer this in the context of the current recession?

WA: I think that is extremely important. We have a low absenteeism rate of about two per cent and an attrition rate lower than the industry standards. That is only possible if you work with your employees and for their welfare. Again, this is a combination. It is not only about money, or benefits and perks. If you look at our situation today, we are going through some very challenging times in the automotive industry and also in Mercedes Benz. Still, the feeling, the motivation and the attitude of our employees is very positive—because they realise that all of us are working together.

Nobody is shying away from responsibilities, or from making sacrifices that are necessary to move our company ahead and I think that kind of spirit and realisation—that we are in this together trying to make a difference—is something that you have to build on by looking at employees from a holistic perspective. So you worry about their health insurance, families, their career paths, and so on. I guess it also works because we are a small organisation with 500-600 people. Ultimately, everyone—from the top to bottom—wants to know that they are appreciated in the organisation and are not merely a number. Nobody wants to feel that if they don’t come tomorrow, it doesn’t really matter.

Overall, the culture in the company is positive and transparent. One big reason for using complete glass [points to the glass walls of his cabin] was to make it clear to everybody that we have open ways of communication and you do not need go through a secretary to see me or other directors. So that there are no secrets in terms of what is happening in the company. This enables you to have an open relationship with your employees.

blankMK: Brands have become an integral part of our experiences. To what extent do you think individuals derive their sense of wellbeing from the brands they choose?

WA: I think it’s a very important part of who you are. For example, Mercedes is a brand that stands for passion, performance, elegance and style, quality, safety, and reliability. People who engage with it are people who like these values, live by these values, and most likely a significant part of whose success also comes from the execution of these values in their personal lives. At the end of the day, you identify with what the brand stands for. So let’s say you choose a Mercedes car, you expect that it will live up to the brand promise, which in turn allows you to communicate to the world, “This is who I am” in a subtle, yet clear way. So it’s the enjoyment of having the vehicle, getting something that’s really worth its money, and the exhilaration of driving the vehicle, and last but not least, it is a statement of style and choice.

MK: So are you saying that brands are an expression of oneself?

WA: I think there is no better way to tell people who you are than to carefully choose the brands that you associate with. Like I prefer Zenia suits to Armani suits simply because the cut is nice, the material suits me, it has attention to detail and it is simply more practical—I can use it when travelling anywhere around the globe while an Armani suit, in my opinion, loses its firm quite quickly.

MK: Do you think a luxury brand like Mercedes serves an emotional need of an individual?

WA: I think the first emotional need is that I would like to satisfy my demand for individual mobility by driving a vehicle that’s worth my money, which is about functionality and value-for-money. There’s a rational component in terms of luxury, comfort, quality and safety, while choosing a Mercedes Benz. But there’s also another, more emotional component—the exhilaration and the pure pleasure of driving a Mercedes, its interiors and the way it looks.

And as I said before, it is your statement of sophistication, connoisseurship and style to the world. So it is basically three levels that you can derive by owning or buying a brand like Mercedes Benz.

MK: Moving on to your personal life, do you practise any fitness regimen? What keeps you going in a demanding job like yours?

WA: I get up at about 5.30 in the morning and spend about an hour with cardio and other exercises. We have cardio-fitness equipment at home, which we use. And most of the exercises are back, abs—I am still working my six packs [laughs]—and a little bit of weights.

In my opinion, one exercises for general fitness. But it also helps us to de-stress and build stamina that we need to carry out our daily work and activities. If you look at Germany, our retirement age is now 67, so we have a significant length of time to work. In order to make it properly through to 67, you have to make sure that you maintain yourself, your fitness and alertness—both in the body and in the mind.

MK: How do you tackle work stress? How do you unwind? Do you simply go for a drive?

WA: [Laughs]… Well, because of the traffic situation here in Pune, it is not always possible to go for a drive. What helps me de-stress is sports, listening to music, [Coldplay, Red Hot Chilly Peppers, Three Doors Down, U2] reading, and spending time with my wife and friends. I think being with your friends and loved ones is always a good way to de-stress and it also helps put things back into perspective.

MK: What role do relationships play in your life and in making important decisions?

WA: On a personal front, my wife and I take important decisions together. We talk it through, come to a conclusion, and then move ahead. Sometimes I bounce off ideas with friends as well. On a professional front, I believe in working with teams. As I said earlier, today’s environment is quite complex and fast moving. You need to take experiences and opinions of a number of people into account before coming to a conclusion. Not that you always take the right decision after deliberation, but your hit rate does improve.

MK: So in this perspective, which was the most difficult and easiest decision, that you had to make?

WA: I think the difficult decision was to make the transition from academia [research] to corporate life. De facto, I traded one passion with a new obsession.

And the easiest decision was to marry my wife Rekha who, I met in the US while we were pursuing graduate degrees. We have been together since 1992 and I am happy to say that marrying her was the best decision of my life. Needless to say that with my marriage to her, I acquired a deep love for India as well, which is why we have worked towards working and living in India as much as we can.

MK: Do you feel empowered to take big and difficult decisions now, since they have worked for you?

WA: In some cases. I have taken similar decisions in the past, like deciding to do my bachelor’s degree in France without any guarantees about the degree being recognised in Germany. At the end of the day, it worked out and I didn’t lose any time in my studies. Then, I had a comfortable position in Germany, but I decided to do a PhD in US—again, with no guarantee, and a fair chance to lose significant amount of time because of the different curriculum in the US. But again, it worked out in the end. You have to work hard to make things work. You can make things work with personal commitment and engagement and the capability to engage people and help them wherever possible. Risk is inherent in any decision.

MK: What would your advice be to our readers who are sceptical about making decisions, especially with respect to a relationship that is most important in your life?

WA: If you love someone, take the decision and work on making the relationship work. You cannot make it work by simply hoping that somebody else will do it for you. Relationships require commitment and perseverance. However, the upside is tremendous. All the investment is worth the effort, provided you have chosen the right person to begin with. So choose wisely.

A few of my favourites…

  • Cuisine: Indian cooking is by far the most tasteful and colourful. It is my favourite food complemented by German bread and sausages, Italian pizza, German white wine and French or Californian red wine, and Scottish whisky.
  • Car Brand: Mercedes-Benz, what else?
  • Sport: Soccer, working out in the gym
  • Country: India, Germany, USA
  • Leisure activity: Travel [still want to see Africa and the Amazon!]
  • Book: Man’s Quest for Meaning
  • Personality: My father.


Manoj Khatri
Manoj Khatri has spent the last two decades learning, teaching and writing about wellbeing and mindful living. He has contributed over 1500 articles for several newspapers and magazines including The Times of India, The Economic Times, The Statesman, Mid-Day, Bombay Times, Femina, and more. He is a counseling therapist and the author of What a thought!, a critically acclaimed best-selling book on self-transformation. An award-winning editor, Manoj runs Complete Wellbeing and believes that "peace begins with me".


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