Interview: Klaus Maier, head of sales and marketing Mercedes-Benz Vans
Klaus Maier is a happy man. As global head of sales and marketing at Mercedes‐Benz Vans he saw his operation’s worldwide registrations reach 294,600 in 2014; a better performance than was achieved in any one of the previous five years.
The success story has continued in 2015, with all models of the Vito/V‐Class launched in 2014 now available – “we’ve just launched Vito in South America,” he reports – and Sprinter and Citan still comparatively new products.
The result of a joint venture with Renault, Citan has just received a minor makeover driven in part by the requirements of Euro 6 – achieved in this case without any need to resort to AdBlue to keep its diesel engines compliant – and
in petrol guise is about to become available with a dual clutch gearbox as an option.
Under the slogan ‘Van goes global’ Maier and his colleagues are even managing to make progress in markets that are not without their problems.
Riding Russian sales
"In Russia we saw a 16% increase in registrations in the first nine months of 2015 and we’re now the second biggest van brand in the country,” Maier reports. “That should stand us in good stead for the future.”
And it is the future Maier is looking to as well as the present. “Russia, China and South America all have great potential and in the long term we have to build up our presence in all of these places,” he observes.
In Russia the van operation has local assembly arrangements with GAZ and YaMZ in Nizhny Novgorod and Yaroslavl respectively, it assembles Vito and Sprinter at Fuzhou in China and builds Sprinters in Gonzalez Catan in Argentina.
It is not neglecting the USA either (it assembles Sprinters in Charleston) and has launched Vito there as the Metris. The idea is to appeal to metropolitan businesses ‐hence the name, which Mercedes views as being more culturally acceptable than Vito – that need a compact panel van for last‐mile deliveries.
“We’ve launched it in the USA with a petrol engine,” he adds; a wise step given the impact of the Volkswagen diesel emissions debacle. What about Europe? “Demand will be very strong for our entire range over the next two to three years,” Maier predicts.
Customers who postponed swapping their light commercials during the recent recession will doubtless be replacing them; but what power source will they choose given the growing hostility towards diesels almost regardless of VW’s current travails and the apparent desire of big‐city politicians (London and Paris both spring to mind) to drive them off the streets?
“If legal requirements and the attitudes of customers change then we have the resources to offer petrol engines instead, or alternative fuel solutions,” he replies.
It is a strategy that has its own risks. Mercedes has marketed a relatively expensive, electric version of Vito in the recent past and sales were by no means enormous.
“Vito E‐Cell didn’t do terribly well because people wouldn’t pay for it,” he remarks.
Pick-up to join the range
As well as increasing sales of existing models Mercedes‐Benz will be extending its range with the addition of a purpose‐built pick‐up developed as a joint venture with the Renault‐Nissan Alliance under a five‐year deal. The first vehicle of its type to be marketed by the Three‐Pointed Star, it will use the same platform as the new Nissan Navara which in turn will also be shared by Renault; another newcomer to the pick‐up sector.
“If you’re going to succeed in Asia, South Africa and Australia then you need a pick‐up and we’ve often thought about adding one to our range,” Maier says.
He would not be drawn on a launch date – “let’s say within the next few years” – but it looks set to be in Mercedes dealerships by 2020.
The van range has of course shrunk slightly with the demise of the ‐ admittedly niche‐market – Vario which had a small but nonetheless loyal following and disappeared just over two years ago. Mercedes has managed to persuade some long‐standing Vario loyalists to replace it with some of the bigger models in the Sprinter line‐up however; with long‐wheelbase 513 BlueTECs converted by German bodybuilder Spier going into service with parcels carrier UPS in Germany, the UK and the Republic of Ireland.
Mercedes showcased the advantages of Sprinter and other models in its light commercial portfolio as platforms for everything from ambulances and compact fire appliances to mobile X‐ray machines capable of detecting stowaways in trucks at its recent TecForum 2015 event in Hamburg, Germany.
Far from struggling to sell vehicles, Mercedes could sell more in some countries, Maier believes, were it not for production capacity limitations. He is thinking in particular of the situation at the Sprinter plants at Ludwigsfelde (chassis cabs) and Dusseldorf in Germany (vans) which have to allocate some of their output to Crafter thanks to a long‐standing deal with Volkswagen.
“This agreement comes to an end in 2016 however, so we’ll be able to dedicate both factories solely to Sprinter from 2017 onwards,” he says.
That will boost Sprinter output across the two sites by 20%, he adds.
In the meantime they are building as many Sprinters as they can within the constraints placed on them. “Ludwigsfelde has never built so many as it is building now,” Maier says.
Mercedes is already investing heavily in both locations spending €300m on Dusseldorf – the company says it is turning it into the competence centre for global Sprinter production – and €150m on Ludwigsfelde in anticipation of the launch of the next Sprinter.
Might some of those Sprinters – Vitos and Citans too for that matter – be driverless in future? Don’t rule it out says Maier – if not completely autonomous then they could at least be semiautonomous.
“So far as parcels deliveries are concerned I can envisage for example the driver walking into the back to pick the next package to be delivered while the van is finding its way to the destination concerned,” he suggests. That is certainly a possibility; just so long as the driver does not fall over while the vehicle is in motion and injure himself or herself in the process.