Christopher Gerdes and his team identify trends in the business environment before they become mainstream. Together they evaluate their observations, derive recommendations for action and examine the potential impact on the present corporate strategy. The job is relevant to a wide variety of corporate units and diversity comes as a prerequisite. An interview about taking bold steps, sustainability and the benefits of peers.
Hello, Christopher. As the Head of Strategy Intelligence & Development, you are responsible for monitoring and evaluating developments and trends in Mercedes-Benz's business environment. Where are you seeing the biggest changes taking place right now?
There is an extremely wide variety of trends. In the automotive industry, electrification and sustainable mobility are playing a key role. For instance, how quickly will the transition to purely electric vehicles take place? Then there are also many user trends that are having an effect on us – be it climate and environmental protection, which covers not only the drive system, but also the materials we install and social issues such as the question of the mobility of tomorrow. Mobility will remain a personal issue. However, the question in the future will be: Do I still want to drive myself, or do I prefer to spend that time enjoying entertainment or relaxing? And how can my vehicle or other technologies help me do that? The demands in each market are changing as well. All those are current examples of important topics.
What do those trends mean for the corporate strategy at Mercedes-Benz?
Besides areas like electric mobility and vehicle software, we are working on strengthening our customer retention as one pillar of our strategy. Do we achieve that merely through the product experience of driving, and how can we also manage to impress customers with our performance in the area of digital features such as infotainment systems and innovatively designed controls and displays?
Do you and your team then make a recommendation?
Every member of the team is responsible for a particular focus area on our strategic trend radar. One of those is called Clients and Society. Two colleagues comb Internet sources as well as internal and external networks for signals. Then they record them and evaluate them according to their relevance. Does a particular trend concern us – and if so, how strongly? Then we attempt to contact the persons in charge of strategic initiatives and discuss whether our existing ideas and measures are sufficient for that trend, or if we need to refine them. Our job includes not only uncovering trends but also conveying information about them. What do they mean for us, what options do we have, and which ones do we recommend? We always submit our recommendation in conjunction with the respective specialist units because our eight-person team by itself is not able to judge every detail.
You and your team play an important role in the company. Can you tell us what your team looks like?
I am convinced that diversity and different perspectives make us better – as a team and throughout the company. In our unit as well, it is important to have a diverse environment – that is, not simply a group of peers with the same gender and nationality, but to deliberately choose colleagues with widely ranging strengths, perspectives and backgrounds who approach and assess things in different ways. Our team consists of industrial engineers and information systems specialists, individuals with degrees in business and Chinese, political science majors, experts from marketing and sales, consulting, controlling and IT. Their levels of experience range from beginner or early professionals to those with more than 25 years on the job.
How do you uncover trends?
We gain a considerable amount of insight from articles on the Internet and on social media posts. They may be press releases or technical blogs or even tweets from influencers. A good way to discover trends in the field of technology is to do research in patent databases. Corporate events and investor conferences yield plenty of information when companies explain their strategies or products and services. In Addition, attending industry symposiums and events and expert forums or even one-on-one discussions with peers from other industries is important as well. I use the term peers to refer to colleagues who have similar functions, duties or expertise and who learn from one another by sharing information and contributing new viewpoints on processes, methods or developments. This culture of critical discussion across team boundaries allows individuals to grow beyond themselves in a positive sense.
What has already changed within the company since the introduction of the Mercedes-Benz strategy, consisting of six pillars?
A significant step was the decision to go from electric first to electric only. As the inventor of the automobile, saying good-bye to an over 130-year-old legacy and dedicating ourselves to a completely new powertrain technology is an extremely bold step that will have structural repercussions throughout the company. Just think about our engine plants and their employees. That is going to mean a huge transformation. At our Digital Factory Campus in Berlin, for example, we have launched an online, external study program of qualification as a junior software developer for employees. The goal is that the participants work as junior software developers in the Digital Factory Berlin afterwards – regardless of their original job in the production field.
You started working at Mercedes-Benz in the product strategy department in 2009. Since then, you have held positions in different corporate units, from Finance to Mercedes-Benz Vans to Corporate Strategy Development. What makes working at Mercedes special for you?
One thing I enjoy tremendously is the high degree of willingness I see in my co-workers to tackle a problem together and find a good solution to it. Their creative drive is just as great as their willingness to venture into new areas and actively shape changes. It takes a lot of stamina in challenging times. Even though the strategic environment has been changing over the past few years, it was always perfectly clear what direction we wanted to go in as a company, what we wanted to offer our customers and what we contribute to society. I feel that it is highly meaningful. In addition, as a major company, Mercedes-Benz is always offering people who wish to change many opportunities to start new paths of development.
What aspects are essential for an effective culture of collaboration?
To work together effectively, it takes two elements: trust and motivation. In other words, I need to trust that the person I am working with has the ability and the desire to move things forward. That is important in order to avoid having too many control mechanisms, to be able to respond flexibly, to be efficient and to have fun working. You also need to enjoy working together on a topic. If you know why you are doing something and that it a good cause, then you can draw a lot of motivation from it.
Finally, let us take a look into the future. Will the corporate strategy enable Mercedes-Benz to become the most sustainable luxury car brand in the world?
That is certainly our aspiration! We want to be a sustainable luxury brand. More than any other, a company like Mercedes-Benz, which stands for technology, innovation and luxury, must play a pioneering role in the area of sustainability. After all, future luxury will be sustainable, and our customers expect us to produce sustainable products. I am optimistic that we can achieve that goal – not only regarding CO2 emissions, but also when it comes to other aspects of sustainability.
While Christopher Gerdes (39) was working for Mercedes-Benz as a consultant in 2009, he quickly received an offer to join the company's product strategy department. The spirit of his team and the challenge of putting the S-Class on the road as our flagship excited him so much at the time that he found it easy to say "yes." Christopher, who comes from the vicinity of Ulm and who studied political science and administrative sciences at universities in Constance, Shanghai and Istanbul, has previously shared responsibility for many international projects, including projects for digital services and new business models. In his opinion, foreign experiences are important for learning to understand the world through different eyes and being able to judge other viewpoints and lines of reasoning. Because the COVID-19 pandemic prevented a planned vacation trip to Asia with his wife and their two daughters, he showed his children scenes from his semester abroad in Shanghai online. He was amazed to see how much the booming metropolis has changed since 2005. In his leisure time, Christopher's rule is family first. He and his family often spend time outdoors. They especially enjoy Lake Constance and the areas surrounding his hometown of Ulm.