Thomas Schaefer. Picture: EUGENE COETZEE
Thomas Schaefer. Picture: EUGENE COETZEE

Volkswagen SA MD Thomas Schaefer is leaving the country to become global CEO of the German parent company’s Skoda car brand.

He will be based in Prague, in the Czech Republic.

Schaefer, who has been at VWSA since February 2015, officially became CEO of Skoda Auto on Monday. However, he will travel to Europe only next week, on a Covid-19 repatriation flight. On Monday, he was still busy on VWSA business, launching a Ghanaian subsidiary that will assemble vehicles for sale in the West African country.

Under Schaefer, who previously worked in SA for Mercedes-Benz, VWSA has maintained its dominance of the local car market. The Vivo and Polo ranges, built at the company’s Uitenhage vehicle assembly plant near Port Elizabeth, are consistently SA’s top-selling cars. In 2019, VW products accounted for 20.4% of SA new-car sales — the brand’s highest share since 1996.

Also in 2019, Uitenhage set a new annual production record of 161,954 cars. Of those, about two-thirds were exported. Most were Polos, with the UK their main destination. Schaefer said recently that despite the Covid-19 lockdown, he hoped the plant would build about 140,000 vehicles in 2020.

In addition to his SA responsibilities, Schaefer has, since 2017, also been head of the VW group’s Sub-Saharan Africa activities. He has established assembly operations in Kenya, Rwanda and Ghana, and signed memorandums of understanding with the governments of Nigeria and Ethiopia to do the same there.

During his time at VWSA, Schaefer has not been shy of criticising the government’s sometimes haphazard approach to automotive policy or its record on corruption and economic management.

He said on Monday his biggest disappointment of the last five years was the government’s failure to capitalise on “unbelievable” opportunities to grow the economy because it was too inward-looking and intent on small issues.

VWSA and the German government are spending more than R100m to convert one of the company’s old factories into a Covid-19 field hospital with capacity for up to 3,300 patients. The first phase, for over 1,000 patients, has already been handed over. Despite recent reports of the Eastern Cape’s collapsed health system, Schaefer said: “I’m happy with what has been achieved and with the co-operation of health authorities. The hospital is ready and at the moment, we have more staff than patients.”

Schaefer will be succeeded by Robert Cisek, currently responsible for car production strategy at VW headquarters in Wolfsburg, Germany. He joined VW in 2018 from BMW, where he had been head of industrial engineering and managed a group performance programme to secure long-term profitability targets.

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