Leader Talks: Mercedes’ Alexander Henzler on changing the way that Czechia drives

At Mercedes, a revolution in the car industry is an opportunity to create better-than-ever driving experiences.

William Nattrass

Written by William Nattrass Published on 19.02.2024 17:00:00 (updated on 19.02.2024) Reading time: 13 minutes

The automotive industry is going through an unprecedented transformation. The adoption of electric vehicles and the rapid pace of technological innovation are transforming the driving experience, and car manufacturers are racing to respond to evolving customer expectations.

Mercedes is at the tip of the spear of this profound change. As one of the world’s most prestigious car brands and a global symbol of luxury, the company is pushing the envelope in both electric and internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles.

Alexander Henzler, the new CEO of Mercedes-Benz Czech Republic and Head of Mercedes-Benz cars Central and Eastern Europe, has spent his entire career with the company. After “falling in love” with Mercedes as a young professional, he progressed from product and planning to steering sales and marketing across overseas markets, and now leads this meaningful cluster for the company in the heart of Europe.

Expats.cz sat down with Alexander to find out more about Mercedes’ role in the evolution of the driving experience and the opportunities these changes afford to people in Czechia.

How are you finding your new role based in Prague, compared to your previous globe-trotting sales activities?

In the last three years, I was based at the headquarters in Stuttgart but was responsible for market development in various markets, including Australia, Japan, Korea, South East Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and South America. Growing the business in these markets, putting it on a more sustainable, digital-proof and future-proof footing, was fascinating.

But earlier in 2023, I decided it was time to settle. I have entrepreneurial family roots, which gave me an inner passion for evolving to meet the demands of a rapidly changing world. So taking over leadership of a market entity was the perfect opportunity. This cluster, including Czechia as well as Poland, Romania, Hungary and Slovakia, is in my eyes a real jewel with strong future potential.

"This cluster, including Czechia as well as Poland, Romania, Hungary and Slovakia, is in my eyes a real jewel with strong future potential."

As Mercedes-Benz Cars Central & Eastern Europe, we sold about 40,000 cars in 2023, but I'm glad to point out that these sales had a very exclusive structure. We want to emphasize the top-end luxury part of Mercedes’ DNA, and this region fits well into this strategy, thanks to its high share of top-end S-Class, EQS, GLS, G-Class, Mercedes-AMG and Mercedes-Maybach customers.

I am very glad to call Prague my home base, even though I’m also traveling a lot to the other markets within this cluster.

What are your first impressions of Prague as a place to live and to do business?

We’re still at the exploring stage, and I keep finding something new that makes me love the city even more. I think Prague is a lovely place to live and work; the size is just perfect, and I like the combination of the picturesque, historical part of the city on one hand, and on the other hand a modern, progressive atmosphere with a characteristic lifestyle and forward-looking attitude.

I’m also impressed by how digital and progressive the city is. I was curious about whether there would be a sense of optimism and a can-do attitude compared with my previous experience from overseas regions, and I do find these characteristics. Prague also has a high level of digital skills; the proportion of people graduating from universities is high, the IT and technological sectors are on the rise, and that makes me very confident for the future.

This also means we don’t just have long-standing and loyal Mercedes-Benz customers here, but also completely new and growing customer groups. Most of them do not come from big corporations; they’re smaller entrepreneurs who have succeeded in developing their business, either in traditional sectors or in completely new ones. 

As such, our customers are getting younger and more progressive. It’s no longer that clichéd image of someone close to retirement wanting to “make a statement”. A common aspect remains, however: Mercedes-Benz stands out as the benchmark in luxury, quality and technology. I’ve already learned an interesting Czech language idiom: to “be the Mercedes” of some business or activity means to provide the very finest product or service. It makes me proud and happy to prove the truth of this idiom every day with my new colleagues at Mercedes-Benz Czech Republic.

"Mercedes-Benz stands out as the benchmark in luxury, quality and technology."

Electrification is a major part of changing attitudes to automotive luxury. Are high-end electric cars particularly popular among affluent customers in Czechia?

It’s developing, but it’s not yet at the level we see in other parts of the world. The overall xEV market (electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles) is about 6 percent of the total market, but Mercedes’ xEV penetration is more than double that. We are the number one seller of premium and luxury electric vehicles in the Czech Republic, and on top of this, we achieved  fifth place in EV sales in 2023 across all car manufacturers in the country with a total EV market share of almost 7 percent.

I’m convinced that this is just the beginning. We have the biggest range of EVs on the market and are spearheading this trend.

What changes need to happen to encourage more people to “go electric”?

There are a few factors. First, do we have the right external environment for drivers through measures such as beneficial taxation, non-monetary benefits, or charging infrastructure? In other markets with a strong action plan, such as Norway, we already see pure electric vehicles having more than 90 percent registration share.

This year, the Czech Republic is taking active measures to accelerate its transition to sustainable transportation. The Ministry of Industry and Trade has introduced a subsidy program to incentivize private companies to invest in electric vehicles as well as charging infrastructure. As I mentioned, we have the widest EV portfolio in the market, so we have several models, including the EQA, EQB, and EQE sedan, which will be eligible for this subsidy program. This will certainly boost demand for electric cars.

From the car manufacturer's side, Mercedes-Benz emphasizes a huge effort to create the most desirable product and experience around electric cars through cutting-edge technology and the new era of futuristic design.

"To experience an electric Mercedes-Benz is a magical moment; once you’ve done this, you don’t want to go back."

We’re opening a fascinating new chapter in our long brand history, putting a lot of emphasis on getting people to come and sit in one of our electric cars and get fascinated.

Driving an electric car is so comfortable, you have this quietness that gives you such a sense of wellbeing, but at the same time it’s so much fun, because the acceleration and torque is breathtaking. It’s amazing that Mercedes manages to make electric cars that handle so well, especially in the top-end range with AMG suspension systems; you feel like you’re driving a much lighter car, with driving dynamics on a never-before-seen level. When it comes to AMG, it’s not necessarily quiet; these cars come with their own characteristic sound experience.

How does the adoption of electric cars in Czechia compare to other markets worldwide, such as Japan or elsewhere in Asia?

It’s very heterogeneous; it differs from country to country and you cannot divide this trend to entire hemispheres of the globe. For example, while Japan is still rather low on EV penetration, in South Korea, the trend is picking up much faster. There, every other compact entry-level luxury car is electric, partly because of a conducive external environment in terms of taxation and well-developed charging infrastructure.

If you were to describe the typical driver of a high-end electric Mercedes in Czechia, what would you say?

If you go for a Mercedes top-end electric car, this says something about you. First, such people identify with Sensual Purity, our characteristic design philosophy. Then, there’s the next level of technology, ease of use and driving pleasure which these cars open up.

At the same time, top-end customers often are in a leading position. What they commit to and express through driving a Mercedes electric car is leading with responsibility into a more sustainable future.

Do you think uptake of electric cars is hampered by any common myths or misconceptions?

First of all, it must be stated that people often think the issue of charging will be much greater than it is in reality. The charging network in the Czech Republic is continuously expanding; just look at how the local Mercedes me Charge infrastructure is growing every day. I drive a pure electric car every day in Czechia and I really don’t see any major limitations.

Of course, we support our customers with charging at home or at work through installation of chargers, which is hassle-free and part of our service. This means people are far less exposed to the necessity of public charging than they might think. At the same time, our Mercedes me Charge service offers approximately 600,000 charging points from independent charging providers across Europe. 

This user-friendly benefit provides seamless integration into the MBUX multimedia system. Easy and convenient charging initiation is ensured through a charging card or smartphone app, directly from the vehicle or automatically via Plug & Charge. Drivers appreciate the user-friendly comfort and seamless charging experience provided by the Mercedes me Charge system, as well as transparent prices and automated payment and billing. 

This comprehensive solution is yet another example of how Mercedes consistently embraces an all-electric future. Throughout Europe, the US and Canada, Mercedes me Charge ensures that an equivalent amount of electricity from renewable energy sources is fed back into the power grid if no electricity from renewable sources is used in charging processes with Mercedes me Charge. This further demonstrates our commitment to sustainable future mobility.

Another myth is connected with the driving experience in sports car segments. So far, the main motivations for our valued Mercedes-AMG customers have been the design, performance, handling and driving of the car. Nowadays, electric cars can offer all this in an even better, more sustainable way. People initially worry that they’ll miss their combustion-engine-powered performance, but sitting in a performance EV makes all the difference. Soon, a whole new era is coming in the performance and sports car segment, with a pure electric, purpose-built AMG.EA electric platform.

Even looking at the off-road segment, I can’t wait for our customers to experience the new era of electric cars. It’s just amazing how the electric version of G-Class handles the most challenging off-road tracks, such as our famous Schöckl mountain in Graz, while also providing totally new capabilities such as the G-Turn performed during the CES 2024 in Las Vegas. We’re looking forward to introducing this iconic model with a unique electric powertrain later in 2024.

Despite the wider adoption of electric cars, the ICE segment is still dominant. How is Mercedes innovating in ICE vehicles?

We bring all the latest trends and new technologies to our ICE vehicles as well. We focus on leading in car software, developing our own operating system and unique features to deliver the next level of in-car experience for all passengers. This includes our large screen pillar-to-pillar-based interior design, first introduced as the MBUX Hyperscreen in the fully electric EQS as the next level of in-car user interface, which we offer in ICE vehicles too.

We are committed to our customers as well as to an electric and more sustainable future, so we are bringing the best and the most efficient-ever ICE vehicles to the markets. The latest E-Class is the greatest level jump in terms of technology in this class we have ever made. More than ever, it sets a new benchmark for mid-range luxury saloons. The new Mercedes-Benz E-Class won the Car of the Year 2024 award in the Czech Republic, chosen by an expert jury of 20 motoring journalists who voted for the best passenger car of the year as part of the 30th annual Car of the Year competition.

We are even bringing brand new models in traditional segments, such as the CLE in the large two-door coupé/cabriolet segment. Thanks to our sophisticated ICE-modular engine platform and systematic electrification, as well as all our other innovations, these models are much more efficient than in the past.

We also offer the widest portfolio of plug-in hybrids on the market, with electric ranges of up to 130 kilometers according to WLTP, meaning most everyday journeys can be covered purely electrically. Our one and only diesel PHEV on the market is very popular among Czech customers.

"More than every tenth plug-in hybrid sold in the Czech Republic in 2023 was a Mercedes."

Mercedes is often mentioned as a leader in autonomous driving; could you explain the difference between the various levels of autonomous driving capability?

So-called Level 3 autonomous driving is where, unlike with the now common Levels 1 and 2 active driving assistant support, responsibility is taken over by the car. This means you can take your hands off the wheel and enjoy the car’s other features. 

Autonomous driving puts even more focus on how technology helps drivers use their time in the car effectively. Business people want video conferencing technologies, others want gaming, while others want to stream video content. In December 2021, Mercedes-Benz received the world's first internationally valid system approval for conditionally automated driving at SAE Level 3. DRIVE PILOT has been available in Germany since May 2022 in the S-Class and the EQS sedan.

But we go even further. This is what is meant by Level 4. Our automated valet parking is the world’s first highly automated driverless (SAE Level 4) parking function to be given official approval for commercial use in Germany. This parking system collects and returns the vehicle completely independently.

Finally, what developments in the pipeline at Mercedes are you particularly excited about?

I’m already very excited about the current product portfolio, especially by my current company car, the EQS 53. However, there are many more highlights coming in the next few years. The best glimpse into how the future will look is to be found by looking at our concept vehicles, which transfer new technologies and design language to our production vehicles.

First of all, our entry-level cars will see an unprecedented level of luxury. We showcased our change to a more sustainable, software-oriented future with our Concept CLA Class. This close-to-production concept provides an insight into the upcoming family of vehicles based on a modular electric-first platform and our in-house operating system MB.OS. It has been designed from scratch to put our Ambition 2039 program on the road, in which we aim to achieve net carbon-neutrality across the entire value chain in our fleet of new vehicles by 2039. 

The new in-house developed drivetrain is derived from the VISION EQXX, comprising 800V electric architecture combined with a battery with exceptional energy density and a highly efficient electric drive unit. Its energy consumption makes the Concept CLA Class the one‑liter car of the electric age. On the topic of sustainability, the floor mats in the Concept CLA Class are woven from bamboo fiber, while the door pockets are edged in a biotechnology-based and certified vegan fabric. The seats are upholstered in sustainably produced and processed leather. We target an average of 40 percent use of secondary raw materials in our car fleet by 2030.

At the other end of the scale, I already mentioned the purpose-built electric architecture for Mercedes-AMG. Here, let’s talk about the recent Vision One-Eleven, our progressive sports car interpretation of a 70s brand icon and design and technology pioneer. 

"I'm sure we will continue to frame the playing field for the future. It’s a wide playing field, it's electric, and it’s going to be a lot of fun."

This concept vehicle comes with the YASA axial-flux motor and battery with high-performance liquid-cooled cylindrical cells, signaling the future of performance electric drive. It’s a modern design reinterpretation of the legendary C 111 experimental vehicles, which were used to test revolutionary Wankel and turbo diesel engines in mid-engine sports cars, and which are now considered to be design icons of their era. The Vision One-Eleven combines a highly dynamic design language with innovative all-electric performance powertrain technology. 

In the words of Gorden Wagener, the Chief Design Officer of Mercedes-Benz Group AG; “we don’t do styling; our goal is to create icons.”

At CES 2024, we showcased a raft of developments that define our vision for the hyper-personalized user experience of the future, in-car and beyond. Our AI-powered virtual assistant transforms the car-driver relationship through natural conversation, paving the way for a hyper-personalized user experience. Constant expansion of our third-party app portfolio brings customers an even wider choice when it comes to entertainment, productivity and more.

We claim that “Mercedes-Benz has been defining Class since 1886”. Our pioneering spirit hasn't changed since we invented the automobile, so I'm sure that we will continue to frame the playing field for the future. It’s a wide playing field, it's electric, and it’s going to be a lot of fun. I’m really excited to bring all this to customers in the Czech Republic.

This article was written in cooperation with Mercedes-Benz Česká republika s.r.o. Read more about our partner content policies here.

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