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Volkswagen Australia bosses join forces at Frankfurt

Transition phase: Volkswagen Australia managing director John White (left) is returning to his native Canada, while Michael Bartsch returns home after a stint in the US to head up the company.

Old and new heads of VW Australia talk in Frankfurt about plans and regrets

Volkswagen logo21 Sep 2015

By TIM ROBSON in FRANKFURT

THE incoming and outgoing bosses of Volkswagen Group Australia presented a combined front at the Frankfurt motor show last week ahead of the change in local leadership in October.

John White, a native of Montreal in Canada, will end a short but ultimately successful two-year stint in the top job, having orchestrated changes across the business as it managed sales and retail network growth and tackled poor results in independent customer service index surveys.

He also led the company through significant safety recalls during 2013 and, at around the same time, widespread reports of unexpected power loss in Volkswagen cars and a Victorian coronial inquiry, which eventually found no evidence of any systemic faults with the VW Golf involved.

Under Mr White’s leadership, Volkswagen’s annual sales remained steady at around 55,000 units in 2013 and 2014, but this year the brand has surged 14 per cent to the end of August. Skoda sales have also improved markedly this year, up 25 per cent, after posting around 3800 sales in 2014 and 3500 in 2013.

Speaking with GoAuto in Frankfurt, Mr White, who is a hockey-mad father of two and is now preparing to return to Montreal, said he had two regrets about leaving Australia.

“My number-one regret is that the tenure not having, from a personal perspective, having had the opportunity to just stay longer and see some of our plans come to fruition,” he said.

“The second thing that would be, as you know, and I’ve been pretty clear, is we’re really focused on improving customer satisfaction. We’ve put in a lot of measures to improve customer satisfaction internally and with our dealers.

“We’re making progress, but I’ve not seen the progress come quickly enough, and we’re making other changes internally that will help to address that so when Michael takes over he’ll have that level of support.”

Mr White will hand over to expatriate Australian Michael Bartsch, who is returning from a 12-year stint in the United States where he was executive vice-president and chief operating officer of Porsche Cars North America for almost a decade.

Mr Bartsch had planned an earlier return to Australia as head of Porsche Cars Australia in 2013, but elected to remain in the US and take a new job as vice-president of Infiniti for the Americas region. He resigned from that position in February this year.

“I think that it’s a truism to say that the Australian market is very much the US business model,” said Mr Bartsch, who grew up in Sydney’s northern suburbs and early in his automotive career worked for Holden and Hyundai before rising through the ranks at Porsche.

“I think the way that we do business in the United States is very similar to Australia. And American dealers are far quicker to adopting the newer technologies, particularly the connectivity in the dealerships, and the seamlessness in dealer management systems.

“Inevitably, what happens in the US happens in Australia and it’s simply a matter of magnitude that drives it. Not acumen, not skill, not prowess it’s purely the mass of the market, it’s the size of it.”

Mr Bartsch acknowledged Australia’s status as one of the most competitive automotive environments in the world.

“The market has over 60 brands represented in it, and it’s extremely competitive and extremely price sensitive in the recommended retail price,” he noted.

“In the US market it’s extremely sensitive in the monthly lease price. So that’s going to take a little bit of a transition. I also think working with smaller dealer network, it’s going to be like running it like a family business again, which I really like.”

Mr White will work with Mr Bartsch throughout October before officially handing over the keys at the end of the month.

“I’ve loved being in Australia,” said Mr White. “Great place, great people, uber-competitive market and I think the Australian market is going to be in great hands with Michael. He knows the market, he knows the company, and I think he’s going to do a hell of a job and in no time we’ll be looking back at what we’ve done here and saying, ‘You know what, that was nothing.’ “The opportunities are before us.”

Mr Bartsch said: “I have to say I’m looking forward to coming back and there’s a certain degree of ego and satisfaction of being able to come home running one of the great global brands of the world.

“For a fellow that grew up in the Ku-ring-gai area and went to Asquith Boys High School, I have to tell you, there’s a certain level of satisfaction in doing that.”

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