Women in the Auto World: Dr. Annette Winkler

One smart lady

When Daimler promoted Dr. Annette Winkler to CEO of its smart brand, it not only signified a big shift in the male-dominated auto industry, it was also a sign that Germany was finally changing its antiquated traditional views on gender equality.

For women in the industry, it's been a long struggle to break through that proverbial glass ceiling.

Yet, mention the significance of her achievement to Dr. Winkler, and she brushes it aside with characteristic humility, preferring to focus on the role rather than her unusual position.

"The less I think about it, the more I can do for the young women [coming up through the ranks] just by being there, being present."

Where many women executives fought their way to the top with aggression, proving they were tougher than their male counterparts, Dr. Winkler is warm and gracious, enquiring after our health and even offering up refreshments.

A native of Germany, Dr. Winkler earned her PhD in Business Administration. From 1984 to 1995, she was the director of a construction company -- another non-traditional industry for a woman in management.

In 1995, Winkler began her career with Daimler when she was appointed Head of Public Relations and Communications with Mercedes-Benz in Stuttgart. Moving up through the ranks, she became CEO of DaimlerChrysler in Brussels, then VP of Global Business Management & Wholesale Europe in 2006. In 2010, Dr. Winkler was appointed CEO of smart.

It's a brand she very obviously believes in, as we were struck by her energetic enthusiasm at the Jeremy Scott fortwo unveiling in Los Angeles last November. She's effusive in her support of the smart as a lifestyle choice, and its commitment to advanced technology like organic solar cells, and alternatives to ownership such as car sharing and attractive lease options which resulted in a recent uptick in North American sales.

Dr. Winkler took time from her busy schedule to sit down with us at the Detroit Auto Show.

AutoVenus (AV): The smart has been an important car here in Canada, although available in Europe for a while. Its arrival here created an awareness of urban microcars where none had really existed before. After the economic downturn, there has been a positive upswing in sales in the last year.

Dr. Winkler (W): Yes, although it is a modest number, we can speak about a turnaround: It is again in the right direction. In the beginning, smart was seen as a radical revolution, being offered as a diesel. Dealers were suspicious as diesel was not known in Canada, but it was the basis of its success.

People wanted to show "I'm different." And that is the red line. All our smart customers want to show that they are different: "I drive premium, but I don't need a big car. With this small car, I'm gaining time, which is the most precious element of my life. I am contributing to the environment."

Unfortunately, due to economic reasons, the diesel version had to be discontinued in Canada. And I think that's where the downswing came from.

However, speaking about the future and the positive outlook: First of all, we have the "Car2go" [car sharing program] which is again something different for people who say, "I don't really need to own a car;" and secondly the big story for Canada will come now with the electric version. And even with the cold, winter temperatures, more and more dealers believe they can make a success of it because they need something totally different. [Unlike] the competition, we come in colours, we come in editions, we come in tailor-made and we have a cabriolet. It's a very emotional car, and it's superbly priced.

There's the huge buzz and excitement with partnerships such as the Jeremy Scott project, and the extra publicity, but the real star has been Car2go.

From the beginning, Canada was very down with it (Car2go). Toronto and Vancouver will certainly be big potential markets.

AV: As far as the conventional smart goes, are there any plans to upgrade the drivetrain, the area where it receives the most criticism?

W: There are two groups of customers, [each] with a conviction. It's black or white. I get emails saying, "Please don't abandon the manual transmission with automatic clutch... it's so fantastic, I don't have to pay for automatic, however, I don't have to push the pedal, which is just super."

Then there is the other group that says: "I hate it, I won't ever love it. It's so awkward... I just hate it."

So, I think the future with smart will be with the new model -- I think for Canada in 2015 -- we will add a double-clutch transmission. And if you don't like it, you can take the electric: there is no transmission.

Your colleagues (at the launch in Germany) came out of the car saying, "It's the best one ever!"

AV: We all did!

W: So, you have a choice: If you want to stay with the manual, it's fantastic. Or you have the double-clutch which is a bit more expensive. Or you have the electric. So, there's a really good range offered.

The future bodes well for the little car that virtually spearheaded its segment here. An improving economy means better sales for vehicles that represent a second or third car for buyers. Under Winkler's leadership, the company has received a much-needed injection of life after the stagnant neglect of the Penske group management.

And with its biggest flaw -- that infamous gearbox -- addressed, the smart is well-poised to win over even more Canadian drivers.