'To become more Indianised we had to be more colourful,' Rahil Ansari, Audi's India head, tells Ajay Modi.
Illustration: Dominic Xavier/Rediff.com
As I walk into Threesixtydegree, a restaurant at The Oberoi, Delhi, for lunch with Rahil Ansari, India head for Audi, I am a bit surprised to see him engrossed in an animated discussion with one of the hotel staff members.
As I approach them, I can hear him enquire about the changes that the hotel has gone through over the two years it had been closed for renovation.
When he spots me, he starts telling me how he was once upset with a five-star hotel in Delhi for asking the same questions about him every time he checked in.
"It used to take about 20 minutes every time and I was forced to express my unhappiness about it. The manager came and apologised. Now, I check in with just a signature. I am impressed by the way they turned my complaint into an input to improve their offering. A complaint should not always make you uncomfortable. You can give it a positive spin -- that is what we are expected to do for our customers."
In fact, he tells me, he chose Oberoi as our meeting place because he wanted to find out how the hotel looks now, after the renovation work. He has been in the country during a previous stint when he spearheaded the carmaker's network expansion plan between 2011 and 2013.
As we settle down in a quiet corner, we decide to get the rigmarole of ordering food out of the way. Ansari orders a non-vegetarian sushi platter and a coke while I ask for a chicken biryani.
"This hotel is like a zone of peace, a place for relaxation... in sharp contrast to the traffic on the road outside," says Ansari, who is the youngest brand director globally for the German luxury car maker.
He tells me he stayed at the Trident Hotel in Mumbai's Bandra Kurla Complex with his family in the early weeks of his appointment as India head in February 2017. "Some of the staff members from the Delhi hotel had been shifted temporarily to Trident Mumbai and my kids used to play with them. It is nice to see some familiar faces again." What memory!
Ansari was just 38 when he took charge of Audi's India business early last year. His predecessor Joe King was 48 when he left India after a three-year stint.
"The management made it clear they needed someone of Indian origin, who has been here before, who knows the psyche of Indian buyers and understands their culture. They also wanted someone young to reflect the personality of Audi, which is a brand for young and dynamic people," says Ansari, who was also part of the team that set up Audi's operations in India during 2006-2007.
Ansari was born in Germany. His father had migrated from Ghazipur in Uttar Pradesh to Germany in the 1960s. Ansari's wife has her roots in Afghanistan but was born and raised in Germany.
"My mother-in-law keeps telling me how modern and advanced Afghanistan used to be. In the '60s and early '70s, women used to wear mini-skirts there," he says with a smirk.
Having one's roots in India can help in more ways than one.
"You can connect faster with the people here; dealers trust you more -- I sometimes chit-chat with them in Hindi. On the other hand, I know exactly how the processes work at the headquarters as I have worked there for three years. It helps to speed things up."
As a child, Ansari would only converse in German. He developed a fondness for Hindi as a teenager.
His India stint is important because this is the first time he has been given the role of heading a market. It has not been an easy ride for Ansari though.
Audi lost its position as the biggest luxury car player in India in 2015 to Mercedes. The decline could not be stemmed and the brand slipped further to the third position, behind Mercedes and BMW, in 2017.
Ansari says his primary aim is to regain the market leader's slot but the company will not push beyond a point.
"We can easily buy market share, but that will not last long. The loyalty rate in the luxury segment in this market is low compared to many other international markets. A lot of the buyers look for novelty and they are not necessarily loyal."
He has started taking some important steps to bring back growth. "Many things needed to change. This is the eleventh year of our operations in the country... we have done things in a certain manner and have been successful in establishing the brand. The associated risk is that you keep following standard procedures year after year. We had to change that mindset. So the first step was Indianisation of our activities."
"For one, to become more Indianised we had to be more colourful," says Ansari.
Audi has recently unveiled a new tagline, 'My kind of Audi'. The idea is to tell current owners and potential buyers that it does not matter how one pronounces the word 'Audi'.
"At the end of the day, you should be able to relate to the brand. In that sense it is 'your' Audi. If we were doing things the way we did earlier, we might have been inclined to project the correct way to pronounce the brand in our communication," says Ansari to underscore the fact that Audi is changing.
He has put in place intra-department task forces to ensure that people are not working in silos and there is exchange of information.
"Some organisations work as a collection of departments... sometimes intentionally and sometimes unintentionally. It is critical to allow flow of information."
That apart, some departments have been clubbed into one. For instance, public relations and marketing is now one department. Product and pricing were earlier part of marketing but now they come under sales.
"I am challenging my head of departments to take up new functions," he adds.
Ansari says he plays the role of a mediator and spokesperson for the India operations with the headquarters. "Luxury is never what the majority wants. I am not happy with what is happening here and this is what I tell your friends here. But when I speak to the headquarters I have to convince them that we should not lose faith and things will get better,”" he adds tongue firmly in cheek.
And how has the market changed overall?
Ansari says the Indian luxury car market has evolved quite a lot since its early days. "The customer is much more informed and there are more luxury car brands in the market. A lot of financing and maintenance packages are available. Until a few years ago, the average Indian spent money on building assets and in jewellery. Now people are more open to owning a luxury car. Cars are also being gifted during weddings," he adds thoughtfully.
That said, the luxury car segment is still small in India, thanks to high taxes.
A year before Ansari assumed office there was a ban on the registration of luxury diesel cars in the national capital region. It was subsequently lifted, but the segment faced many more setbacks.
After a short-lived euphoria of low taxation under the Goods and Services Tax regime for a month in July last year, the GST Council decided to hike the cess on luxury vehicles.
Despite the uncertainties, Ansari says he loves working in India. "Mumbai (where Audi India is headquartered) is like home. Living there is easier than taking up another foreign posting."
Indian food is another big draw for the Ansari family. "My wife cooks Afghani food at times but it is not as spicy... I have to have them with pickles."
His first two stints in the country lasted two years each but the third one, he is hopeful, will be longer.
"My family also likes India. When we go to Germany during the holidays, my kids ask after a week when are we heading home."
Ansari plans to take his wife to his ancestral village in Ghazipur and club it with a visit to Varanasi, Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi's Lok Sabha constituency.
As we approach the end of the meal, I ask Ansari if he wishes to have something for dessert. "I have gained weight after losing it and I want to lose again," he says with a grin.