Thomas Schäfer was formerly CEO of Skoda
Why Thomas Schäfer is primed to wake a sleeping giant and what’s first on his agenda
Amid the recent turmoil and musical chairs in Volkswagen’s management, one name has rapidly come to prominence: Thomas Schäfer.
For much of the past decade, he headed up VW’s South African operation, by all accounts doing a very good job but still away from the main engine room of the group.
That soon changed in June 2020, when he was named as Skoda CEO, introducing a new electric strategy to see it through the next decade and impressing all those who encountered him with just how well he understood his customers.
Less than two years later, he was made COO of the VW brand, and three months after that he was leading the company as CEO. Not only that, but he has also taken on an additional role, head of brand group volume, essentially ensuring that the Group’s volume brands (VW, VW Commercial Vehicles, Seat, Cupra and Skoda) work together to not all end up developing the same back-end systems that make no difference to customers. Some responsibilities both inside and outside the company, and some rise.
Schäfer joins as CEO (he reports to the new Group chief, Oliver Blume) at a time of distress for VW. Its rollout of its ID EVs has been beset by problems, specifically software ones and just how unreliable and un-user-friendly they are. Which is where Schäfer’s customer empathy comes in particularly handy.
This week, we caught up with him for the first time in his new role. The first question I had written down was ‘what’s your number one priority in this job?’, but before we got to the questions and answers (Schäfer was speaking at an exclusive event for Car of the Year jury members, of which Autocar is one), he had already stood up and given a speech in which he not only shared his priorities but also outlined exactly where VW must do better.
Talk about confronting the issues head on. It’s rare for car industry executives to be so candid. Schäfer was refreshingly open and honest and didn’t hide away from the problems that he has inherited. Each of the points he made were significant enough on their own; together they made for a bit of a bombshell statement for an executive so new to a role at the head of a company.
Among Schäfer’s points were that people has fallen out of love with the brand; the brand has taken its eye off the ball in making its cars user-friendly for its customers; there’s “no excuse” for not having top-quality software; it’s not acceptable for VW to be anything other than a leader in its segment; the way VW speaks to the media and in its advertising in promoting the company’s message needs to change; its models need to look friendlier; and the number-one focus for VW is to start listening to its customers once again.
All is not rosey in the VW garden, of which Schafer is well aware. To hear him admit as much publicly sends a powerful message to the company and its customers about what needs to change and how it will change. To its rivals, it marks an ominous warning that a giant of the automotive industry that has dozed off, rather than gone to sleep, is ready to fire once more.
In Schäfer, VW has a real talent on its hands, and it knows it. Fix these problems at VW and there could be no stopping how high he will rise.