As the new kid on the block among top executives at European importers, Jonathan Browning may have the toughest mission of all.
Named to replace Stefan Jacoby at the helm ofof America Inc. following his jump to Volvo Car Corp. in Sweden, Browning is charged with carrying out an aggressive expansion plan designed to see Volkswagen nearly quadruple its U.S. sales to 800,000 vehicles in 2018.
Near-term, VWA’s CEO will have to engineer a flawless launch of a new assembly plant in Tennessee and find a way to put a serious dent in Camry and Accord sales with the auto maker’s first U.S.-built midsize sedan.
In an interview conducted by email, the former Jaguar global marketing director and one-time Vauxhall Motors Ltd. chairman, says success forwill be measured not only by volume and market share increases but also by “vastly” improving the experience the brand delivers to its customers.
Ward’s: What is the one sign you are waiting for before you declare the U.S. market ready to rock again?
Browning: It is ready to rock for Volkswagen now, and we can see that in the October sales figures. Sales across our brands were up 17.9% over last year.
Our new Jetta got off to a particularly strong start in its first full month on the market. It was the best sales month for Jetta since 2005, excluding the period covered by (the) “Cash for Clunkers” program.
Of course, we still face economic uncertainty, but I believe Volkswagen is poised to significantly increase market share in the U.S.
Ward’s: What are the factors that would make 2011 a successful year for Volkswagen in the U.S.?
Browning: Next year will be historic for Volkswagen. Not only will we have the all-new Jetta in the market with its TDI clean diesel and GLI performance variants, we will also have the new U.S.-built midsize sedan.
Those two cars will lead our transformation to a volume brand. The new year will also bring the exciting new Beetle and refreshed versions of the EOS, Tiguan and CC. Each vehicle will hit the “sweet spot” in every segment and be solid competitors in the market.
Our goal is not only to grow sales, but to also vastly improve the experience we provide our customers. We intend to further strengthen our dealer relations, build stronger capabilities in key areas like certified pre-owned vehicles and ensure a solid foundation for sustained profitable growth.
Ward’s: Your New Midsize Sedan that will come from the Chattanooga plant is expected to draw new customers to the VW brand. How do you see your buyer profile changing in the U.S. over the next few years?
Browning: Volkswagen has enjoyed a very loyal group of enthusiastic owners over the years, and we intend to continue offering products to keep them in the family.
However, to grow the business, we also must bring new customers into the fold. New vehicles like the Jetta and NMS will offer more for everyone and cover a wide variety of needs.
We are already first in many global markets, and now we have to achieve our full potential in the United States. Put simply, we will become a volume brand.
Ward’s: Currency swings can have a dramatic impact on sales volumes and profits for importers. What is the game plan for minimizing the effects of euro-dollar swings? As you look out to 2018, what percentage of your sales would you like to be accounted for by North American-built vehicles?
Browning: A major part of our growth plan takes into account the need to build more products locally. In fact, 80% of the parts for the New Midsize Sedan built in Chattanooga, TN, will be from North American suppliers.
We expect the New Midsize Sedan to account for a significant portion of our U.S. sales.
Ward’s: What are the key signs to look for that the NMS and Chattanooga plant are succeeding in their missions?
Browning: The U.S. market is a top global priority for Volkswagen and the Chattanooga-built NMS will help us get there.
We will measure our success of the plant and the car through three core values: 1) Quality and value for the customer; 2) Style and performance of the vehicle; and 3) Clear commitment and responsibility to the employees and communities where we operate.
Ward’s: What lessons learned from your time at Jaguar can you apply to VW in America?
Browning: All of my experience in the auto industry has helped prepare me for my new role at Volkswagen.
Working at other companies, including two big U.S. auto makers, has given me a chance to learn how they operate, to see what they are doing right and what they could do better. Of course, it also deepened my understanding of the U.S. market and American ways.
I’m pleased to be back in the U.S. I have lived in the States twice before, and I earned my MBA at Duke University.
I love the American spirit and American values, which are very much in line with Volkswagen values. Americans set high goals and work hard to achieve them. They are confident people. We have that same spirit at Volkswagen.
Ward’s: If you couldn't work in the auto industry, what would you be doing?
Browning: I can’t imagine doing anything other than working in the automotive industry. That’s why I’ve stuck with it my entire career.
I love being around cars and all the challenges that come with operating in a global environment. That said, I would enjoy putting a few more miles on my bicycle. I’m told Washington D.C. is a great place to ride, so I look forward to exploring the many beautiful streets and trails throughout the city.
Ward’s: What’s the most interesting/challenging part of your job?
Browning: The challenge for me and the team here in the U.S. is to connect this spirit of our company ever more closely with this same spirit among American consumers.
Our task is not only about building emotional connections with customers, it also is about developing and communicating the tangible realities of the VW Group’s commitment to the U.S:
From our impressive new $1 billion plant in Chattanooga, where we have already hired more than 1,000 people to our Electronics Research Laboratory in Palo Alto (CA), where our scientists, engineers and designers are leading the charge to develop intelligent driver assistance systems and electro-mobility technology.
And most importantly…to our products that have been developed explicitly to address U.S. customer requirements.