Julian Fieres, 32
Head of strategy, transformation and sustainability , ZF Friedrichshafen
What was your first automotive job and why were you interested in the industry?
My family has been operating a car repair, rental and towing business for two generations. I started my first automotive-related job when I was 14 and earned extra money by cleaning the returned rental cars. I later went on to work as a rental service agent and dispatcher during high school. However, my first real automotive job was for ZF's electronic systems product line as a business development and sales specialist.
Your greatest achievement?
It was during my time as project manager for a ZF greenfield electric drivetrain project in eastern Europe. My work included selecting the site and negotiating the government incentive package for our operation. It was amazing to go from standing in rubber boots on a wet piece of land to eventually organizing the plant's inaugural event. Today, more than 700 employees build parts there that contribute to making mobility greener. It's still a very satisfying feeling. Personally, I had a huge health setback while studying in the UK. I fractured my neck during an American Football game. For several hours I couldn't feel my arms and legs. Recovery was tough because I had to balance it with finishing my master's degree, which I did mostly while lying in bed. Despite these challenges I finished best in class and was even able to walk again in time to accept my degree. I'm proud of my recovery from this dark time in my life.
Born: Frankfurt, Germany
Languages: German, English, French, Russian
Education: Doctorate candidate for innovation and transformation, WHU - Otto Beisheim School of Management, Vallendar, Germany; master's degree in international management and leadership, University of Glasgow, Glasgow, Scotland; bachelor's degree in politics and management, University of Constance, Constance, Germany
What was your biggest failure and what did it teach you?
Together with my teammates, I established two internal startups within ZF. Both times we were granted patents, gained customer interest and secured sufficient funding. Unfortunately, we haven't managed to move to scaling or brought in any significant returns. This bothered me so much that I investigated this challenge academically, basing my doctoral thesis on it. I learned just how difficult entrepreneurship really is. You won't understand the pitfalls until you get a bloody nose. However, failure is also quite motivating. Currently, I'm building a startup with my wife outside of work where I'm trying to not repeat mistakes of the past.
What is your current challenge at work?
As head of transformation, I'm responsible for the design, management and orchestration of our supercharge program. Through this nine-year program we aim to move ZF from a mostly combustion-vehicle-oriented company to a leader in e-mobility. This transformation affects every aspect of our business and the life of the 30,000 employees in my unit. A change like this can only succeed if people buy into it and support it. It's the most diverse task I have ever undertaken as it includes aspects from strategy, finance, change management, psychology, marketing, digitalization, sustainability and politics. It's all happening in a dynamically changing environment.
What is the best advice you have ever received?
One of my former bosses told me about his pause-and-step-back rule. A little distance usually changes the perspective before diving straight into solving a problem. This rule has proved to be invaluable. It's vital to keep an overview of everything. I think of the pieces as if they are moving on a chessboard. This advice has helped me make better, healthier decisions as a manager.
What advice would you give to a person considering a career in the auto industry?
I would say there has never been a better time for bright young minds to make an impact in a highly relevant, technology-driven industry. The automotive industry might seem traditional and somewhat bureaucratic from the outside but times are changing rapidly. I would tell any person interested in an automotive career to evaluate their strengths and beliefs. Then start looking for specific activities. I feel this industry offers a place for almost every skill and every mindset.
January 2021-present: Head of transformation, strategy, sustainability and digitalization, ZF Group, Friedrichshafen, Germany
2020-present: Lecturer for strategy and transformation and new business models, University of Constance, Constance, Germany
2019-present: Lecturer in strategy and technology transformation at WHU - Otto Beisheim School of Management, Vallendar, Germany
2020-2021: Director/head of sales and strategy for e-mobility division, ZF, Schweinfurt, Germany
2018-2020: Senior manager/head of strategy, business development, product planning, M&A for the e-mobility division, ZF, Schweinfurt
2016-2018: Manager for strategy, business development, M&A for the e-mobility division, ZF, Schweinfurt
2015-2016: Specialist business development, strategy, organization, M&A for electronic systems division, ZF, Auerbach, Germany
2011-2012: Paid intern, economic department, German embassy, Pretoria, South Africa
What job do you really want to have in the future?
What I really want is a planet and society that I don't have to be ashamed of when my kids get old enough to ask questions. There is little time left and we are a long way from making things better.
What do you do to relax?
I'm a total bookworm and often read two books and several magazines at the same time. Reading really calms me. I'm also a passionate sailor. To me there's nothing more relaxing than tossing your anchor in a lovely bay for the night. No phones and dinner with friends under the stars. When it comes to sports, I've recently taken up yoga to help support my neck.
What is your dream location to live?
I'm fortunate to have lived in many of my dream locations. That includes Johannesburg, Sydney, St. Petersburg, Russia, and Shanghai. However, my happy place is where I'm at now, which is the beautiful city of Constance. It's right by the mighty Alps and on the shores of Lake Constance, which is one of Europe's largest lakes.
What is your favorite driving song?
That changes all the time. I'm a total music nerd and use streaming services. Some of my all-time favorites include “Stumble” by Kraak & Smaak Ft. Parcel, “This is How it Goes” by Goldfish and “Up Around the Bend” by Creedence Clearwater Revival.
What was your favorite road trip and why?
My longest road trip was in Australia and it lasted a year. It included three friends, our surfboards and a Toyota Hiace Hi-Top camper van. We had a great time. However, my most impressive road trip was traveling around South Africa in a Volkswagen Golf Chico. We went from Botswana to Swaziland, then to Durban and on to the magnificent Kruger National Park. It was great fun to see Range Rover and Toyota drivers shake their heads in disbelief that we took a Golf Chico on safari.
What was your first car?
A third-generation Volkswagen Golf GT. I custom built it. That meant throwing out the reserve wheel for a subwoofer set, tinting the windows, lowering the chassis with sport dampers and putting a nice exhaust system on it. It really helped having a car repair shop in the family.
I drive a BMW 530e iPerformance plug-in hybrid. Next year I plan to get an Audi e-Tron S Sportback.
If you were a car, which one would you be?
I would probably be a Caterham 620 R. It's not too big but packs a lot of power in a small frame. It's quite sporty, takes turns and bumps easily and is just a lot of fun.