Appropriately masked, sanitized and decked out in trendy, precision-tailored brown-and-tan suit trim, Thomas Schaefer cut a dapper figure when he addressed an important gathering in Port Elizabeth last week.
Schaefer, in his capacity as outgoing chairman and managing director of Volkswagen South Africa (VWSA) was on the top floor of the National Health Laboratory Service (NHLS) building where the carmaker and the Eastern Cape health and political leadership jointly launched a new COVID-19 testing laboratory.
ENDING ON A HIGH NOTE
The new testing facility — which was established to serve against and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic — was the latest in a string of significant, multimillion-rand investments and initiatives by the automaker in its proactive war on the virus.
While the tone of the occasion was naturally serious and one of importance, the departure of Schaefer, which was raised by many high-ranking dignitaries there, added an additional sombre element to the proceedings.
For Schaefer — whose new appointment as global CEO of Škoda Auto had already officially become effective from 3 August 2020 — it was potentially the last time he was to face such a large media contingent in South Africa.
THE MAN BEHIND THE MANAGING DIRECTOR
Besides driving achievements for VWSA, the development of the automotive industry in South Africa, new African markets and playing a pivotal role in the growth of the regional economy, Schaefer ultimately cemented the legacy of his tenure in Nelson Mandela Bay with critical contributions to the fight against COVID-19.
A FITTING SETTING
The NHLS building was therefore a fitting backdrop for Schaefer — who has repeatedly drawn praise from the highest echelons of government to civil society and the media — to reflect on both his five-year stint at the helm of VWSA and the road ahead.
In an exclusive off-the-cuff interview with The South African, the energetic executive expressed a mixed bag of emotions around his new assignment — that of heading up Volkswagen’s Škoda Auto brand in Czechoslovakia.
“Look, I love this place and I have really enjoyed being here. I have come to consider South Africa as my home. My wife, Wendy, thoroughly enjoys the equestrian side of life here. We have horses…so yes, the new assignment naturally comes with some mixed feelings,” Schaefer said.
Conversely and as a man not known to shy away from new challenges, Schaefer spoke equally enthusiastically and immediately knowledgeably about his new tasks — which he said he would be tackling from a small town situated close to Prague — the capital of the Czech Republic.
“The Volkswagen Group manages its various brands, its operations and markets by grouping them in appropriate categories. One of these categories is known as ‘the volume group’.
“Volkswagen, SEAT and Škoda are all brands in the volume group. As such it is certainly going to be a new and exciting prospect to be involved in a volume group brand in Europe,” said Schaefer, pointing out that Škoda markets were positioned in both western and eastern European regions.
He explained that the volume group of brands — while each differentiated by aspects such as aesthetics, design cues, trims and add-on technical equipment — they shared common manufacturing platforms.
This gives the parent company economy of scale in manufacturing the different brands in that, among other benefits, the company is able to procure high volumes of components which are common across all the brands in the group.
This in turn delivers more affordability to both consumers and the manufacturers.
And perhaps providing the executive with the opportunity to exercise the considerable experience and skills he garnered from his foray into Africa’s developing markets, Schaefer also noted that Škoda enjoyed a strong presence in India.
“So yes, Škoda is a high-volume brand and they have a very strong regional outlook and focus. India is one of these markets that Škoda will be placing a strong focus on,” he said, revealing that Škoda was retailed in 10 countries.
And unequivocally, Schaefer was adamant that the future of the automobile rested on the further development of electrical vehicles and the roll-out — “which is happening in Europe right now” — of supporting electrical charging stations and networks.
AN HONOURABLE LEGACY
Questioned around what he believed to be the most rewarding achievements made by VWSA (under his watch), Schaefer, without hesitation, pointed to the company’s immediate, high-paced and significant contributions to the war against COVID-19.
“With the pandemic having played out in the devastating way it has: Firstly to people and then society and the local and global economy, I think the reasons why we had to do all we could are completely obvious,’ said the modest executive.
‘I’LL BE BACK…’
“As it is the practice within Volkswagen, management is rotated to various new countries and new markets from time to time. While I have now been reassigned to a new country, I certainly hope and aim to return to South Africa one day,” concluded Schaefer.
IN THE REAR VIEW MIRROR
- Schaefer, widely regarded as a force for good in the domestic automotive sector graduated from the University of Mannheim, with a mechanical engineering degree, before starting his career in the industry.
- He was first employed by Mercedes-Benz, where he worked on production planning and quality assurance for the original A-Class.
- He was then deployed to East London, where between 1998 and 2002 he was quality and vehicle assembly manager at Mercedes-Benz’s Eastern Cape assembly facility.
- He then left for Malaysia before resettling in Germany.
- Schaefer had transferred to Volkswagen by the end of 2012, shortly after which he was sent to the company’s operations Uitenhage, in Nelson Mandela Bay, South Africa.
- It was at this stage that Volkswagen had begun investing heavily into its Eastern Cape facility – from where the company was running significant export programmes.
- In late 2014, Schaefer returned to the province and ushered in a new era of outstanding growth for VWSA. This despite immense economic and energy challenges.
- Tackling the energy supply challenge, he initiated a project to source more power for the Uitenhage production plant from sustainable sources – resulting in a R3.5 billion power project that would take VWSA production off-grid.
- Schaefer oversaw VWSA’s best performance in Nelson Mandela Bay when in 2019, it built 161 954 vehicles, beating the previous record of 137 758, set in 2011.
- African expansion featured strongly for Schaefer who led the brand’s moves into Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and Rwanda. He served as president of the African Association of Automobile Manufacturers which was established to develop the industry on the continent.
- Schaefer also played pivotal roles in black supplier development, the development of its workforce, and local infrastructure. He achieved this and other successes through his involvement and leadership of other civil groupings, such as the Nelson Mandela Bay Business Chamber, which he served as president.