Relationship-building is a fundamental aspect of running a business. So how does one go about it? In this episode, joining Michael Zipursky is Martin Stadelmeyer of AMBE Engineering, LLC. Having previous experience with companies like Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz, Martin has the experience and the connection most people in the industry aspire to have. Today, he shares how he has managed to establish and maintain healthy business relationships throughout his career. Plus, he highlights the potential benefits of staying in touch with your network. Stay tuned!
I’m with Martin Stadelmeyer. Martin, welcome.
Thank you so much, Michael. Thanks for having us.
It’s great to have you on. You’re the Managing Director and Partner at AMBE Engineering. Your firm has conducted over 400 projects with 100 clients around the world. Your team in Mexico has over 125 members. You have over 100 members in the US, a presence in Brazil, India and China. It’s a very global company. Before we talk about what you’re doing, I want to get the back story of how you got to where you are.
I know you’re originally from Germany. You were born in Munich and spent some time in a small town in the state of Bavaria before becoming a world traveler. Take us back to the early years. My understanding is that you started in the automotive industry. Is that where you began right out of college or university? What were you doing in those early years?
I started in automotive at Volkswagen. I never wanted to go into automotive. I wanted to go to China. If I take you back through that journey, I wanted to go to China because I was allowed to spend an internship in Beijing in 2001 but I lost the energy. I was used in Germany. People were complaining about the weather, everything’s bad and that the world will come to an end anyway. People had energy and they wanted to bring their families forward. They talked about their master programs or how they wanted to build their own businesses. I love them.
I majored and was always looking for a career in Finance. I did all the right steps in terms of internships at Deutsche Bank, HypoVereinsbank, Siemens, discount brokers, Ernst & Young and PricewaterhouseCoopers. I was prepared for my finance career. Volkswagen came and said, “You’re not an engineer but we’ll teach you what you need to learn about becoming a buyer and we’ll send you to China.” That’s when I signed.
You said yes to getting into the automotive industry, even though finance is where you wanted to be because they gave you an opportunity to go to China?
It’s my first year. My initial thoughts were, “You need to be about five years in a company to learn something before you can become an expert at it in order to offer something to the other country within your organization.” I still believe that, by the way. My plan was to enter an organization for at least five years and then later become an expert at it. I will then be sent eventually to China or Asia. Volkswagen said, “We’ll teach you in three months what you need to know. We need people in Shanghai. Just go.”There's a difference to being a subject matter expert on purchasing, quality, or logistics versus really understanding the overall picture and the automotive industry. Click To Tweet
I imagine you had some excitement when that opportunity presented itself. Were there any fears or concerns? If there was any dark side in Martin’s mind around entering a brand-new country, was there anything that you were concerned about?
Not really. I’ve been fortunate that I had many opportunities to travel prior to going to China. I spent a year in the United States as an exchange student. I met people from all over the country and from all over the world. In Minnesota, I learned what it meant to be in a tough winter. I later studied in Spain and Greece. I spent half a year in Venezuela. I was marked drop there, so I wasn’t afraid of China. My point of concern was my first job. How will that play out? Taking my back then girlfriend from India to a new culture, how will that play out? One of the concerns was will I be able to fulfill my own very high target to leave the country after a year with conversational Chinese? I did enough partying but I did less of partying and a lot of studying in order to get to the level of which I wanted to get to.
You and I share many similarities in that. I’ve also always considered myself to be an international citizen. I spend time traveling and living in different places around the world. I went to Japan to open up a branch office for one of our businesses many years ago. A lot of what you’re saying brings back some great memories for me. I want to come back though for a moment to your years in Volkswagen.
This is a very large well-known organization. Germany is known specifically for engineering, precision and systems. When you look at what you learned during that time and you think about where you are as a partner in a consulting firm, what are the most powerful lessons or concepts that you learned from that time that you feel played or supported the success that you’ve had to this point in your career?
Structure, processes and training, are three of the good reasons why it makes sense to start out a career in a big corporation. I’ll always be grateful for all the training Volkswagen provided. If I compare that with our current organization, we are not able to bring people through months of training in the first year.
It’s mostly hands-on but the structured training program helps all the processes and systems that Volkswagen, Mercedes or any other big corporation has in place. It lets you understand how the whole value chain in automotive works very specifically in the small niche where you will be assigned to since you’re not going to start as a CEO. Understanding how purchasing processes work is a big value add and that helped me to understand purchasing in detail.
You’ve built yourself up being known as a real expert in the automotive industry. What do you think goes into establishing yourself as an expert? What are the steps or the requirements in order for somebody to become an expert and be recognized as an expert in their industry?
What I recommend to anybody who’s in automotive is to take one launch and be responsible as a program manager. Whether you’re on a tier one level and you’re responsible for your product or at the OEM level, try to be responsible for one car, van or truck, whatever launch and that will truly teach you. Before that, I thought I was an expert in automotive purchasing but you only see part of the process.
Only if you’re responsible, the purchasing, quality and engineering guys tell you, “According to my process, I’m not responsible for whatever you’re missing, my dear project director or project manager.” You have to find a way inside that organization to still launch the car on time. That’s where I understood most about automotive. My best teaching was to become the program manager. I did that way later in my career 5, 6, 7 years later.
The second thing is to get out of your own company. You can spend all your career inside an OEM and you’ll be very good at what you’re doing but that doesn’t mean you’re an expert in the automotive industry. In order to understand what’s going on, it’s great to be in a consulting company. For example, if you have different clients that approach the same thing like launching a car in different ways. For me, there’s a difference to being a subject matter expert like purchasing, quality or logistics versus understanding the overall picture of the automotive industry. How do you make sure that you’re not only an expert within your organization because you’ve been there for 20, 30 years?
When you think about being inside of a consulting business and things that you could do to accelerate the perception of your expertise in the marketplace, what recommendations would you have to people who are already running their own consulting business? If they want to be recognized in the marketplace, what are some things that you’ve seen work well yourself or that you believe could make a difference, help them to get that recognition and see those results sooner?
Here’s one thing Charles Schulz introduced to us and I am grateful for that. He has a very unique approach. I truly appreciate him as a person, a human being and as a friend. He says, “At the beginning, it’s not about making business or money. It’s about sharing what you know. If you have something valuable to share, whether it’s LinkedIn or whatever social media platform you use and you do it in an intelligent way, people will come back and ask you for your advice.” It’s not about making the set sale on day one. It’s about sharing your knowledge. What I found from self tussle is to be together with the right people.
An example in Mexico is Oscar Albin. He is the president of INA. That’s the industry association for all automotive parts manufacturers. It’s probably one of the top two organizations in the automotive world in Mexico, if not the top one. Once you get his and his team’s attention and you get an opportunity to speak on his conferences, podcasts and other things, that helps. It doesn’t make them money but it helps to establish you as an industry expert because he wouldn’t invite you if you don’t have anything valuable to share.
Is that what you’ve done? Walk us through that. I want to make it tactical and valuable for everybody. What did you do? What were the steps that you took to get his attention, acceptance and some time on the stage in front of potential clients?
I had the luck that I was sent by Mercedes as the Head of Purchasing and Supply Quality to Mexico years ago. At that time, I got to know Oscar. He invited me at that moment as a Head of Purchasing. Here’s the first thing. Many of my predecessors probably did not go to these conferences because you have to get the buy in of the compliance department. It’s not that easy to get your presentation pre-approved in a big organization. Even though he invited 10 OEMs, only 4 showed up. That was the first step.
While I was working for the OEM, I tried to help him out in this case because for my day-to-day business, it didn’t matter whether I was doing this presentation in front of a couple of hundred people or not. I thought it was beneficial for the mission because we were doing supplier development and looking for a specific new supplier at that moment. I also understand why people say, “I’m not going to do that.”It’s about sharing what you know. If you have something valuable to share, people will come back and ask you for advice. Click To Tweet
That was the first step, establishing a relationship. In that case, I had something to offer to him. The second important step was when I left Mercedes, he was on my top ten people to call, not email. That’s important. If something’s important to you and your mission, don’t use LinkedIn or email. Call. Try to get a meeting or take a coffee. That’s exactly what I did. I called Oscar and told him that I would like to have a coffee with him because I will be leaving Mercedes or in that case, Daimler and I will be joining AMBE. I want to talk to them about what we can do together going forward.
How did he receive that? Some people hesitate to take that action, Martin because they don’t want to come across as being salesy. What was your mindset going into making that request?
“I don’t want to sell you anything, Oscar. I’m here to let you know what AMBE has to offer. I’m brainstorming together with you about what we can do together. How can we create a win-win situation?” That doesn’t mean that I expect him to run my sales app on his channels. Maybe there is a topic where we can give value and add to his members. It’s not going to cost him to have us on his panel.
Is that what you said to him to get the meeting or was that going through your mind as you were thinking about setting up that meeting?
That was going through my mind. What was going on in my head was Oscar is one of the most important people in the automotive industry, if not the important one in Mexico. He is certainly someone to talk to. I need to get a coffee with him, so he knows what AMBE is doing. Even if he doesn’t let us play on any of his channels, his advice is good.
I don’t remember whether I called him before I took the decision or after. Here’s another important thing. If you’re ever considering leaving a big company and going by yourself as a consultant, think about who are potential stakeholders in your future and use them as a mentor. I’m not sure and maybe Oscar remembers when I asked him before I left on what his opinion is. I certainly asked several people before I took the big step after twelve years in a corporate career to lead.
You took that step. You’re the Managing Director and Partner at AMBE. Walk us through on some of your roles and responsibilities. It’s a good size firm with people all around the world. What are you focused on day-to-day? What’s your mandate?
My mandate is mainly business development. It should be 80% of my time but with all the other small things that pop up, I spend less time with my clients than I would like to. Still 80% of my job is focused on developing our existing and new client relationships.
Let’s walk through that and begin with your existing clients. It’s an area with lots of concerns. It’s not a struggle but when people think about business development, marketing or generating revenue, it’s quite common for people to think about new clients. Going out there and trying to draw up new leads and new business. The data shows that most business tends to come from existing clients. What are some of the best practices or steps that you or your team takes consistently or that you’ve found that works well to develop more business from existing clients?
It’s the right balance of the non-annoying drip system. I never want to sell. I want to be the first person to be thought of when the customer needs something and that he thinks about us. That’s my role, the way I interpret it. That drip system is by email, social media or calls. It depends case by case. Whether drip system will be used weekly, monthly, three months or once a year, it depends on the use case and client.
I’ll give you examples. One of our very important OEM clients, I had an email distribution list of 40 key players inside that OEM. They got weekly updates because we were on a very special and important project and program with them where that OEM said, “I will help AMBE grow because you’re a minority supplier and women-owned. We will help you grow. Please keep us informed on a weekly basis.”
Based on the feedback we received, they’re like, “We love your weekly update emails. We know exactly what’s going on within AMBE and the relationship between the OEM and AMBE but don’t send it every week. Every 3 to 4 weeks is fine.” We changed it. Its rhythm is to every four weeks. Besides that monthly email update, I don’t take the phone and call some of the key players or send them a text message so they know we’re still around.
What were the contents of that weekly update? Was it about what was happening inside your company or the work you were doing with the client? Give us a high-level overview of what was the content of that email.
Step one, what is the big news. For example, we received the biggest purchase order of our company’s history from that client. That would be for sure in two weeks, a number one headline item. Thank you for the purchase order for these four new projects. That’s a great next step. It then would go into what’s the interesting news. For example, one of our partners named his son after the client’s company name. That’s crazy but he did it because he liked the name. We continue to share baby photos to the partners, like his one-year-old birthday and the client just lost it. That pulls up their top management at OEM. Make it personal.
When we hire a new important director, we share that news with our client. Not every person that gets hired gets shared but important key personal changes. The sales funnel we have within the client, what are the updates? What are the current projects with the client? Where do we stand? Lastly, client referred business. This is an important one. When you think about the supply chain in any industry of the OEM, if you wanted to, our main business development is not because the OEM buy our service but because they tell their tier ones, “Why don’t you work with AMBE because we trust them?”
You can transfer that into any industry. One example in business development, I don’t go to my clients. Whatever tier one company says, “You may have problems with your supply chain. Let me help you.” I usually say, “I assume you have your houses in order. You got everything perfectly under control but maybe one or the other of your suppliers has given you a headache. Why don’t you let us work with them? They pay so it’s free for you.” That is a very important sales term.Business is very simple. It’s only about one word - trust. Click To Tweet
In addition, part of your touch points might be a phone call, a social media or text message. What are those messages? If you were sending a text message to check-in with somebody, what would you typically be saying to them in that text message?
“Hope you’re well.” Depending on how well I know the family, “Hope the family’s well. Time for a quick touch point.” Another example would be, “The situation is getting better. It’s time to meet for a beer/coffee.”
With this drip campaign as you called it or the sequence, how much of it is automated and how much of it is manually when you’re sending the messages to each person?
It’s 100% manual. Why? Here’s the number one reason. I don’t know how many email bots and I delete them immediately. I don’t care for them. After you get the second one, you know it’s an automated system behind because I get them every week or every two weeks. I do not agree with them. There’s a difference between whale hunting and fishing in the big pond. If I would fish in the big pond for $1,000 here and $4,000 their contracts, I probably would have to automate because I don’t have the time to individualize every message. It depends on your ticket sites. If you’re targeting $20,000 to $1 million deals or $50,000 to $1 million deals and you think you can get it done with automated messages, good luck, let me know how it’s going.
You’ve typically seen it in terms of your sales cycle because you are doing manual and it sounds like this is a very long-term approach in terms of building relationships. If you were to target a brand-new ideal client you’ve never worked with, what would be the typical sales cycle? How long would it take for them to become a client based on what you’ve seen in the market and the market you’re in?
It’s anything from 1 week to 14 years. Let me give you two examples. We tried to enter into a Japanese OEM and my boss started that journey years ago. In 2020, we finally got the purchase order. That’s called persistence. Management generation after management generation. We finally got a shot and we’re proud to be associated with the company that we were allowed to do one project. It’s a great company.
If you have the right product and the market is hot, it might take a week if you have the right referral source into that client. I don’t like emails. Trade shows are okay. The best thing that can happen is if somebody sends an email introduction, that somebody already knows the target person. A best thing that can happen is Oscar Albin sends an email introduction to your target customer. He knows the general manager and he says, “Why don’t you talk to AMBE? These guys are good.” We take it from there. If you then have blue collar staffing and people are hurting for people, you can get it done in a week.
You’ve given some great ideas and actions you’ve taken on the internal client development, the existing client base and getting more business from them. What about new clients? What are you doing? What do you find is working best in terms of new client acquisition generating leads in the marketplace?
It’s asking your existing clients for references where they think that they can help you open the door by forwarding an email of yours. That’s the best way. For me, business is very simple. It’s only about one word and that word is called trust. My job as a business development manager, director, agent, whatever your name, is to establish trust. Do you think on the one art side of the spectrum an automated email bot doing your work, that those establish trust with another human being? The introduction where Sean says to his buddy Cho, “I worked with AMBE or your organization before. Why don’t you try them out?”
When you want that referral or instruction, what’s the language that you use? Are you doing it over a phone call or through an email? Walk me through on how you go about intentionally getting those referrals and introductions.
I always prefer to ask for it. That’s the topic you need to do, eye to eye contact or in a phone call. I do not think it’s a smart move to send an email out, unless there’s a good relationship and say, “Can you introduce me to so-and-so?” This is why I like personal meetings. One is timing and the second one is a medium. Medium is personal or phone. Second is when do I ask for that? Do I ask for that right when I got the purchase order? No, I asked for it after we had a great project together or after the clients have bought.
“You helped me out with a problem. Now is a great time to ask for it. Thank you. I appreciate the good feedback. Any chance that you could also connect us with your other plan managers? We know that you also have a plan in Pennsylvania.” It’s inside their own organization. That would be number one. We come back to the same thing that you mentioned. Don’t try to always find new clients. Penetrate the one client you already have first and then focus on the next.
This is based on already having relationships and clients. Let’s take the example that maybe you’re new to the industry or company. Let’s play with the idea that you don’t have those relationships and clients that you can go to get introductions and referrals from. If your role was the same as it is, which is to develop more business for your consulting firm, what would you do if you didn’t have those relationships? What would be 1, 2, 3 things that you feel, “This is where I’m going to place my bets and where I’m going to prioritize my energy towards?”
First statement will be harsh. Sorry for not being encouraging. The second will be more positive. Here’s the first statement. Get a job and while you have a job, build these relationships, then go back into independent consulting. Have your own business plan and that includes foremost before anything else, “What do I want to sell?” Second, “Who are the top 10, 20, 50 people I feel confident that they will take a coffee with me to listen to me?” Whether they buy or not, that’s a different thing.
Before you jump into the cold water of being an independent consultant, you should have these very clear in your mind, “What can I do? Where are my strengths? What do I want to offer? Who are my 5, 10, 20 clients with strong recommendations?” I’m old school. I know many people have jumped into the cold war and have been highly successful. Kudos. I went on a very long road. I don’t say my road is the only one but that’s the safer one.
Imagine this. No age discrimination but you’re fresh out of college. However old you are, you’ve never worked but you decide, “I want to become an independent consultant and build my own business. What would I do? Number one, I need to get the experience because without the experience, it’s tough to sell because people will smell it. How do I get the experience? If I have to work for free, then I worked for free and I do only contracts that are based on success rate. Maybe I’m a good communicator and maybe I get in front of 1 or 2 people. I’m not going to ask for $1,000 or $2,000 a day. I’m going to save every penny at the end based on the KPIs, which we move together,” whatever that KPI is in your industry or business line.Don’t try to always find new clients. Penetrate the one client you already have first. Click To Tweet
How do you get in front of people? That’s the next question. By all means, use all the channels you have, whether that’s Twitter, LinkedIn, social media. It’s tougher to go whale hunting, so you have to spread the net wide. You put some of your ideas out there and see the reaction. Why not polarize right at the start? In order to be a good leader and then you copy from what everybody puts on LinkedIn, you’re not making a difference. One or the other person will like that.
That’s such an important point, especially when it comes to content and expressing your ideas. If you take that middle of the road where everybody else is, there’s no differentiation. You want to have an opinion and a clear point of view. It might push away some people. That’s fine. Those people typically would not become clients anyways but people will know what you stand for and they’re more likely to engage with you.
AMBE’s worked on a lot of different projects and clients all around the world. When you look at the engagement process and the structure that you typically take clients through, is there a standard starting point? Do you begin with a certain type of engagement or project with most clients at the beginning? Walk us through what that looks like. Is every project custom? Is there a bit of a program you take people through where it’s a bit more standardized? What does that look like inside your company?
The answer is no. It’s not standardized. It’s individual client by client. The key thing is how we get a chance for a meeting, whether that’s in person or via Zoom call-in order to introduce us. All that’s needed are fifteen minutes of the client’s time. That’s a little bit of my personal approach. The question is, how within 3 to maximum 5 minutes can I establish trust? If I cannot establish a base level of trust within the first 3 to 5 minutes, I failed my mission. I may as well shut off the computer, pack my stuff and go home.
My question was a little bit more about when you’ve engaged a client or the beginning paid engagement. What you’re talking about here is very interesting. I want to go deeper on this for a moment. What have you found is most important to make sure that you do focus on in that initial sales conversation to get the trust and interest? What are a few things that people should be looking for?
It’s the old name dropping in common history. Try to connect is number one, whether that’s people we know in common, companies we work together or projects which go wrong and you start talking about whatever disaster and whatever plan. That certainly connects. My personal approach is not so much to talk about football, baseball and all the other sports but it’s certainly a valid way to establish that personal connection. That would be number one.
Number two is to establish credibility. That the other side recognizes you as an industry expert and not somebody that doesn’t know what he or she is talking about. It’s easier if you come and say, “I used to run supplier quality responsible for a whole country for an OEM.” People usually tend to think that you know something about running supplier quality. That may or may not be the case but it certainly helps you in establishing the trust.
If you had a career that prior wasn’t a large tier one that’s recognized for their logistics for a quality system in a market if you have that in your background, use it. If it is 1 or 2 very precise and clear project examples where the other side sees, “This guy or lady knows exactly how it’s working,” then bring them early in that conversation.
Let’s say that we’ve had that meeting and I go, “Martin, this is great. I’d like to work with AMBE.” Is there a typical starting point like a discovery offer or some initial step that you take with clients or most clients tend to start with that or is it custom? Every client, every project can be different.
It’s custom. That’s the number one answer. You have certain tools in your toolbox. One tool would be, I come for a day to your plan. I walk around. I’m not going to charge you. Here’s the thing about not charging anything. Usually the answer is, “If I walk around for half a day in your plant and you’re in Metro Detroit, I’m not going to charge you anything.” This opens the conversation. “There’s this freebie if it’s within our period.”
If it’s a bigger client, which we want to target, we will come in for 2 or 3 days with a team and we will do an initial analysis. You don’t have to pay for the consulting time but I want you to cut me the travel expenses if it’s only $200. What I’m telling the client at that moment directly is, “You know that I know that I don’t care about the $300 or $500 travel expenses. I can cover them.”
That’s not the point. The point is I want you to have a little bit of skin in the game because I know how painful it is for you to establish me with a supplier number and the purchase order and if the purchase order is only $200. If you don’t care about the $200, then I don’t care about that but I want you to go through the pain. Why? It’s because you want a result. If everything is for free and you’re busy on that day, you maybe even tell me, “Thanks for coming but I got a client emergency. Please leave again.” You don’t want that, especially after you traveled halfway across the United States to give a 1-day or 3-day free consulting.
How have you ever had to have that conversation with a client? If you’re saying you pay $200, they have to go through getting you the purchase order and the supplier number. Do clients ever say why and then you have to explain?
I explained it even before they ask why. The way how I told you, that’s exactly how I explained it. I tell them upfront, “It’s not about the $500 guy. It’s about you having to go through the pain because I want you and your team committed. It doesn’t matter for you, whether it’s $500 or $5,000. You have to probably go to your boss, ask for permission to onboard a new supplier and give me a PO. The amount almost doesn’t matter. After you have explained to your boss, you need to deliver. That means I need to deliver and we’re in the same boat.”
Before we wrap up, a few final questions for you, the first is when you look at your career to this point and you look at where you’ve had the biggest and greatest success or the most impact, is there a habit that you’ve cultivated over these years that you do on a regular daily basis that you feel contributes to the success and impact you’ve had?
Stay in touch with people. You don’t know whether they end up as your client, boss or employee in the future. Be nice to people. Things come around. Be positive. Don’t take it personally. If you reach out to 10 people, only 1 will buy and that’s fine. Maybe if you’re doing well, three will buy. Don’t expect more. It doesn’t matter. As long as they keep you in their mind and maybe a year later, they want to meet.
Here’s a quick follow-up question for you on that. How are you managing that? Are you using a specific CRM? What’s the tool that you’re using to help you to stay on top of who to reach out to and when?Stay in touch with people. You don’t know whether they end up as your client, your boss, or your employee in the future. Click To Tweet
We do have a CRM. I simply use Outlook and put in reminders. There is this simple red flag. That’s how I manage my agenda. I send out an email, “We’re still here. These are the news in AMBE.” Then I put in a reminder of 1, 2, 3, 8 months from now and then the next one comes out. I use the same email chain this way so they’ll see that there are frequent updates and different opinions on that within our organization. We all have our style.
A second question for you and I’ll have one more before we wrap up. What’s the best book that you’ve read, fiction or non-fiction?
I always switch between fiction and non-fiction. The one I’m listening to is interestingly called Human Compatible by Stuart Russell. That’s a good one. Another one is The Bomber Mafia by Malcolm Gladwell. I loved the author. Whatever book I read, I loved him. I know you asked 1, you get 3. The last one is Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari. He’s one of the other authors I truly love to listen and read.
Martin, our final question but no less important is for those that want to learn more about you, where’s the best place for them to go?
Martin, thanks so much for coming on. I appreciate your time.
I appreciate your time. Thank you, Michael.
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