WORDS: ANINDA SARDAR
PHOTOGRAPHY: ROSHNI MANGHANI
WHAT REALLY MATTER ARE STRONG PRINCIPLES, TRANSPARENCY, ADAPTABILITY AND A TEAM WORKING PASSIONATELY FOR A COMMON GOAL. AND OF COURSE, A CLOSE KNIT FAMILY. THAT’S THE KEY TO SUCCESS SAYS STEFFEN KNAPP, DIRECTOR, VOLKSWAGEN PASSENGER CARS INDIA
IN PRINCIPLE I’M NOT A CLASSICAL German,” clarifies Steffen Knapp, Director of Volkswagen Passenger Cars India, right at the start of what would eventually become one of the most unconventional interviews I have conducted. Given that the man who leads VW’s efforts in this country had turned up sharp at four in the evening for our photo shoot, I would have passed off that remark as a casual statement, said more in conversation than with real intent. Yet, the fact that he was there ready to appear in the pages of a men’s lifestyle magazine, slightly unusual in the VW world, was evidence of what Steffen was trying to explain to me. Here was a man willing to try out new things and break down established convention. As long as the core principles remain strong and untouched. “I spent the first 15 years in Africa. So I know a little bit, let’s say, less structured circumstances, but my characteristics are ingrained from my parents. There is German structure there and you recognise this,” he says with a twinkle in his eye and a smile at the corner of his lips.
It is this duality, of being able to accept a chaotic environment, like India where he leads the VW charge, for what it is while also retaining his structured German efficiency that marks Steffen out from others. And this duality is also beginning to make itself felt in the way the VW brand itself is reaching out to its audience. “What are we bringing to the table? German engineering, precision, structure, quality, focus. The Indians come with the warmth and the hospitality. This emotional link. The perfect combination of both makes the brand strong,” he says before adding “The brand needs to have an emotional hook for its customers.” This is a new way of thinking here at Volkswagen, which has primarily been driven by an underlying messaging around its products, safety, skillful engineering but little to build that emotional link.
A part of this is of course shaped by his experience in our country. “I think I got more easy-going and not that impatient. Germans are not patient. Germans are very impatient people because everything has to be fast and efficient and on time. You become much more patient and relaxed here.” What follows is an anecdote from a couple of years ago that brings with fresh insight into the man. “When I came to India in August 2017 on a business trip, Mumbai was flooded. So I had to stay overnight at the airport because there was no hotel available. Nothing. In contrast to German people in that situation, Indian people were just stretching out on the floor and sleeping. The Germans, and I was exactly the same, runs around to try to find a solution. You know what happened after one hour? I put a newspaper on the floor and shared a nice drink with a colleague. We sat down and we relaxed because there was the realisation that we couldn’t do anything about our situation.” So, here was a man willing to learn how to create positive thinking even from a negative environment. Probably the reason why VW, which has not done as well as it should have in India with its fabulous products, has chosen Steffen to lead from the front.
Which brings us to India 2.0, VW’s masterplan for success in the country. “India 2.0 is all about being successful in the domestic market. It’s not about exports. It’s about us really delivering a sustainable future for the brand. That means we have to become more Indian.” And by that he means Indian engineers working on products, Indian developers doing the R&D, all for a distinctly Indian audience. But why the shift? Steffen is very open about the fact that the brand needs to incorporate Indian values to be successful. “You know your markets. What do I bring to the table? I bring the understanding of my brand. I bring my network. Once that is done, the Indian way of doing is what is needed.”
The candour is incredibly refreshing. Here’s a man who is literally speaking his mind and not the sanitised words of a carefully prepared briefing book. “Mutual transparency is the key to success. If you don’t keep things on the table right at the beginning, 99 per cent of the cases things bounce back.” So what’s a good day at work for Steffen? “When people start to be accountable. I love this. When a person takes on a responsibility and starts fighting for it. When they identify with their responsibility and assume ownership. When I see this, I feel really happy. Then I know that my leadership is really working.”