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Meet the brain behind all those Smart cars

Published February 8, 2013

People are more important than money. It’s a simple message, but it’s the one that put Dr. Annette Winkler on the path to success as the global head of Smart, and vice-president of Daimler.

As she oversees the little car’s continuing growth, including car-sharing programs, increased penetration into the U.S. and other markets, and electric versions of Smart cars, bicycles, and scooters, Winkler works hard to balance the challenges of a global network while adding a personal touch.

“I often start a meeting by saying, ‘What question haven’t I asked you?’” she says. “I tell them, ‘I want to listen to you. What are you discussing when I’m not in the room?’ I want to encourage them to ask openly so I can answer and know their ideas. It’s very dangerous to have a hidden agenda in a company.”

Winkler, who works at the company’s headquarters in Stuttgart, originally wanted to be a classical pianist. Music is still her hobby, but she ultimately decided on a different career when she realized how few musicians actually make it to the top.

Instead, she studied business administration, earning a PhD in 1986. As is common in Germany, her education was a combination of schooling and apprenticeship, and she worked in a medium-sized construction company. The experience guided her business philosophy: that staying hands-on and in touch with all aspects of the company is the key to success, and no issue is too small to ignore. “One euro is a lot of money, not one million euros is a lot of money,” she says. “You have to control it from the beginning.”

Her work in the firm earned her the title of Entrepreneur of the Year, and she was asked to give speeches to various business associations. “It was unusual for a woman at the time, especially in construction,” she says. “Then I gave a speech at the University of Berlin. Someone in the audience was with Daimler, and they invited me to deliver a speech to the company. I arrived in my red BMW — I think (Daimler chairman) Dieter Zetsche saw it!”

Winkler normally lectured groups of 300 to 400 people. “I asked how many people would be participating, and they said not too many, only about 1,500,” she says. “That was only the leadership level of passenger car development in Germany. And I was coming from a company with 100 people! But I made my speech as I normally would, with down-to-earth messages that people are more important than money, and I got some applause.”

That wasn’t all she received. The company was looking for a new head of communications for Mercedes-Benz, and Winkler was hired for that job in 1995. She held several positions in the following years, including managing a dealership and as CEO of the company’s Belgium and Luxembourg divisions, before being put in charge of the global sales network. Finally, in 2010, she moved into her “dream job” of heading up Smart.

“It’s a small company in a big company, and I was educated in family-owned smaller companies,” she says. “I come out of a philosophy of how to create value. Smart was never a company that only wanted to be a car manufacturer. It was about influencing cities, less pollution, value, and a better environment.”

It may have been in line with Winkler’s vision, but actually making it happen wasn’t initially easy. “It was too early,” she says. “Twelve years ago, no one was interested in that mobility. We had to bring people into the car and let them drive it. Today people are asking for it, and there are new markets opening up for the brand.”

In Canada, the company has launched Smart Add-On, offering parking spots in high-traffic areas specifically for Smart drivers. Three lots in downtown Toronto provide free or discounted parking for the cars, and one includes a charger for electric vehicles. The company is also working on such things as its Car2Go car-sharing program, now in Canada in Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary, and software that can give smaller vehicles priority in parking lots.

“We’re looking beyond the car,” Winkler says. “The idea was always to build around the car’s uniqueness. I don’t think you can find another car company where this could happen, where we build around mobility in big cities with the specific concept of Smart.”

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