Fuelling innovation: Audi HK MD René Koneberg has manoeuvred his way to the front of an evolving industry
Fast cars are a thrill of their own, and René Koneberg still remembers the excitement of watching Formula 1 races at the time when a young Michael Schumacher was breaking into the sport.
It inspired him, not to take to the track, but to pursue a career in the car industry with a focus on the science of engineering – a decision which led, through a series of logical steps, to his current role as managing director of Audi Hong Kong.
“When I was 18, my first car was a VW Beetle,” says Koneberg, who hails from near Frankfurt Germany and whose father worked on the production side of a newspaper business. “I loved taking out the engine and tinkering with it, just for interest, and things went on from there.”
Opting to study economics and engineering, he realised early on the value of having a good grounding in business principles. Clearly, technical know-how alone would never be enough to make it in general management, which required a wider scale of expertise to guide the fortunes of a division or company. On graduating in 1996, his first job was with an automotive consulting company based in Ascot to the west of near London. The work centred on advising clients how to develop dealer networks and optimise each dealership in terms of financial performance, reporting, and promoting different brands in parallel.
“I quickly learned that one of the essentials of the industry is to ensure a profitable model for the manufacturer, importer and distributor,” he says. “When you are bringing new products to the market, it also makes a big difference if all the sales and after-sales service people are properly trained and certified.”
That near four-year stint was also a chance to start honing a personal style of leadership – one built on clear principles and strategies, and then empowering team members to get on with the tasks at hand. “For me, that is good management, and it makes my job much easier.”
Subsequently, an offer came to join Audi in Europe in 2000, initially to formulate sales strategies, followed by a succession of roles in the Middle East and Asia, which entailed broader aspects of marketing and distribution. Along the way, he also gained experience handling national and international fleet and corporate sales and, while sales director of Quattro Gmbh from 2008, became involved with the motor sport side of the business.
The last four years have seen him spearhead the company’s brand building in China, establishing a first virtual showroom in Beijing, and, since April last year, address the evolving challenges of the Hong Kong market. These range from launching new models – three have been launched already this year – including the new generation Audi A4 which features the latest driver assistance systems – to anticipating new customer demands and the likely effects of technical innovation.
For example, the company is using Hong Kong as a pilot city in Asia for its “at home” mobility service. This allows residents of select high-end properties to rent a preferred model via an app for use as and when they want, without having to buy. As a result, customers can choose different cars to suit their needs during the week, at weekends, or for special occasions.
“The feedback so far has been amazing,” Koneberg says. “The concierge has the keys, and we plan to partner with steadily more condominiums.”
For example, in response to industry trends and environmental concerns, the company also recently launched its A3 Sportback e-tron in the local market. The first batch of this plug-in hybrid sold out within a week and, offers the flexibility to drive using either the combustion engine, the electric drive, or in hybrid mode, it is viewed as an attractive advance in terms of “electric mobility”.
“Through the EuroCham Automotive Council, we talk to the government about harmonising standards for the industry and co-ordinating where to install charging points,” Koneberg says. “We intend to bring a fully electric SUV to market in Hong Kong in 2018. The technology is there, but the infrastructure needs to be ready for drivers to charge vehicles wherever they go.”
With digitisation sweeping through the consumer sector, the company has also set up a special department to push innovation and maintain a competitive edge. This is especially important at a time when industry-wide sales are under pressure and governments are using tax breaks and subsidies to encourage the switch to environmentally friendly vehicles. “It is clear that the automotive sector will change enormously over the next five-plus years,” Koneberg says. “The whole business model is evolving, with major implications for dealerships, service centres, product development, headquarters management, and interacting with customers via social media. We see Hong Kong as the prime place to take things forward and need the skills in the organisation to cope with that.”
Koneberg keeps in shape with a combination of regular 10km runs and wakeboarding in Sai Kung. He also devotes a significant amount of spare time to overseeing the R8 LMS Cup race series he helped to set up at circuits around Asia. It currently includes a total of 14 teams and has led to a wider role steering Audi’s overall customer racing and motor sport strategy in the region.
“I have a ‘C’ racing licence, but if you manage a series, you can’t compete with the drivers,” he says. “I started it from scratch in 2012. The cars are sold to customers who now take part in races throughout the year.”
René Koneberg’s advice on careers in cars.
See all sides “To get ahead, you need the education to understand both the mechanical and business aspects.”
Open your mind “Since the industry is changing a lot, you must be flexible, international in outlook, and open to working with different people, departments and cultures.”
Prioritise passion “If people are enthusiastic about the brand, the technology and their role, they will be effective in their jobs and happy in themselves.”
Stay mobile “Aim to change jobs every three to four years, accepting the chance to take on new tasks and challenges within the company.” Providing such opportunities is also a way to enhance employee loyalty.
This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as Fuelling innovation.