WHILE many executives of European car companies find Asian markets, particularly Thailand, to be different from elsewhere in the world, Roland Folger may be an exception.
Last year, Folger, 59, was appointed president and chief executive of Mercedes-Benz (Thailand) Ltd, the official distributor of Mercedes-Benz vehicles in the country.
But unlike many of his predecessors, Folger is no stranger to the Kingdom, having worked closely with former distributor Thonburi Automotive Assembly Plant (TAAP) since the 1980s.
He first joined Daimler AG (the parent company of Mercedes-Benz) in 1979 right after graduation from the Gottlieb-Daimler Gymnasium, and was a key person in the parts organisation department. Folger was assigned to Indonesia, responsible for sales, in 1985 and was later the president and CEO of the Daimler-Benz Representative Office in Singapore between 1988 and 1989.
“You learn something new every time,” says Folger of his assignments in Southeast Asia, which included working with TAAP regarding spare parts. “It was my first impression of Asia and it was a very positive one.”
After other positions around the world, it wasn’t until 2011 that Folger returned to Asia (after highly successful stints in the United States where he helped launched the M-Class SUV and in other global markets), leading Mercedes-Benz Malaysia until 2015 as well as Mercedes-Benz India from 2015 to 2018.
As the world moves towards electrification of automobiles, luxury carmakers like Mercedes-Benz are well on track to respond to new trends.
In September last year the company unveiled its first mass-market electric vehicle (EV), the EQC, which is expected to be offered in Thailand later this year.
Folger says that EVs are a new breed of automobiles that require a supporting network.
“At the moment there is not enough distribution network for charging - that’s the general feeling that people have right now,” Folger says. “And Thailand is not the only country. This happens also in the US and Europe.”
In Thailand, Mercedes-Benz is one of the companies that has been highly active in setting up charging facilities around the country. Apart from home charging, EVs can also be charged at various locations such as hotels, shopping centres, hospitals, offices and even golf courses. Quick charging requires just one to two hours, according to Folger.
“We have about 150 charging boxes located countrywide now and we will continue to build more at wherever people are spending more than an hour or two,” says Folger, adding that other companies are also doing the same thing.
However, the road isn’t exactly clear for the charging business.
“The government might think that everyone wants to get into the EV charging business, but in reality it’s not very profitable. You don’t see car companies investing in petrol stations do you?” he notes. “But by placing them into the right places, we can start the momentum.”
According to Folger, Thailand has a strong position in the EV world, thanks to the large number of government agencies working together on this topic.
“This is important for business as it is more attractive to invest here, when the country says that we want to move into that direction” he says. “Thailand is one of the top five countries in the world for Mercedes-Benz because of the government support for the auto industry.”
He admits that right now EVs might not be a profitable business for the company – Mercedes-Benz has invested 12 billion euros on research and development for electric vehicles alone.
“This is the biggest amount we have put into a specific cause,” says Folger, adding that EV sales could make up just 15-25 per cent of total Mercedes-Benz sales by 2025.
Folger also says that the automotive world is also moving towards autonomous driving, which will complete the package started by EVs.
“In the near future vehicles will be connected and EVs will come with legal autonomous capabilities, with innovative systems that affect people’s lifestyles, such as software that optimises your trip, giving advice along the way with AI (artificial intelligence) systems.
Whether or not Thailand will become an EV exporter in the future isn’t a sure thing, though.
“It depends on what other countries do as well,” Folger says. “As for the Asean scheme, it’s possible. Thailand will be at the forefront of this due to better costs, efficiency and personnel than in other countries in the region.”
While EVs may help remove emissions out of the city, there are other concerns.
“We have to increase EV use in the city in order to get the emissions out of the city first,” he says. “But the power plants are still dirty while other types of transportation are still highly inefficient [and should also be addressed], such as cruise ships or aeroplanes.”
Folger says EVs will change the way we live – just like the mobile phone did. The world is changing very fast and automobile companies that can deal with these changes will be successful.
“It is an exciting time for Thailand,” he says. “I’ve been with Mercedes-Benz for 40 years and have never seen anything like this before.”