Taking the wheel for VW's future


Paul Willis takes control of the Volkswagen Group of brands in Ireland today. Olive Keoghspoke to him about his plans for Audi, VW and Skoda here

IRELAND MADE history in 1950 when the first VW Beetle assembled outside Germany was built in Dublin by VW's Irish franchisee, Motor Distributors (MDL), under the control of the O'Flaherty family.

Today, history is made again as VW's Irish operations transfer back to the parent company in Germany. Boss of the newly created Irish distribution subsidiary, VW Group Ireland, is Paul Willis.

A quietly spoken man whose Belfast accent has been softened by decades of living away from Northern Ireland, Willis is a motor industry veteran with over 20 years experience.

He says he is not about to make sweeping changes to the highly successful business built up over 60 years by Motor Distributors.

But Willis has ambitions. He wants VW to challenge Toyota for market leadership, and believes that the new Golf will play a vital part in helping VW leapfrog second place Ford to the top of the sales league table. It's a challenging target.

Toyota currently holds a comfortable 14 per cent of the market, while VW is some way behind at 10.5 per cent.

"MDL has done an exceptional job over a long time with VW, Audi and Skoda and my challenge is to build on this success and secure the long-term future of the business," Willis says.

"With VW specifically, I think we have the potential to take on the goal of market leadership. The brand is very strong here and while we will not be pushing volume for volume's sake, we will be making the most of every opportunity while adhering to brand values."

Willis left his position as chief operating officer of Kia Motors Europe after only a few months, to take the VW job. European managers do not always find it easy to adapt to the Korean way of doing business, but Willis says the reasons he resigned were personal rather than professional.

"I was living in Germany and my wife and children were in the UK, and being a commuting parent was difficult and hard on all of us," he says. "We wanted to be together as a family and the VW job has allowed us to move back to Ireland. I also missed being part of the VW organisation, and in particular my friends and colleagues from VW in the UK."

Willis takes over the VW group's Irish operations at a difficult time for the motor industry, but a good time for his group's brands.

All three (VW, Audi and Skoda) are at the start of new model life cycles and well positioned to take advantage of whatever buoyancy the January 2009 market brings.

Willis has high hopes for the sixth generation Golf, which he describes as "a beautiful piece of work and much improved over the outgoing model". Audi's new smaller SUV, the Q5, makes its debut at a time when the marque's popularity is rising, and tastes in the SUV segment are downsizing.

Audi is now outselling Mercedes and snapping at BMW's tailpipe while Skoda (whose new Superb has just arrived) with a market share of just under 3 per cent, is outselling marques such as Seat, Citroën and Fiat.

Willis says customers should be unaware of the change in distributor. "The aim is not to disturb. It is very much business as usual and 100 per cent of the existing MDL team is moving to the new company," he says. "The relationships between customers and dealers are already well established and any steps we take will be to try to improve this relationship further.

"There is always room for improvements in customer satisfaction. What may change are behind-the-scenes processes. For example, how we send feedback to the factory to optimise our performance.

"We will also look at dealer training and how we can improve our processes around customer handling."

2008 has not been a good year for the Irish motor industry but Willis has been through industry peaks and troughs before and is not about to panic about falling sales.

"I think it's important to stay calm when faced with short term pressures. Making a quick decision to solve an immediate problem can hurt further down the line," he says.

Willis is satisfied with the size of the VW group's dealer network in Ireland and says there are no plans to adapt an aggressive market strategy. "You won't see discounting or other aggressive tactics," he says. "We are well positioned to grow based on the strength of our products alone."

To relax, Willis swims, reads, plays tennis and is a passionate supporter of Manchester United. His musical tastes range from Cold Play to Van Morrison.

He played tennis at university level, and in another life would like to have been a professional tennis player because he is attracted by its one-on-one competitiveness.

Asked what industry he might like to work in apart from the motor industry, Willis says "I'd like to be a teacher and to teach business and management skills to senior students probably at second level. I feel it would have been very useful for my future career to have received tuition in these subjects while still at school."

Factfile: Paul Willis

Job:managing director of VW Group Ireland

Family:married with a son and a daughter

Background:a statistician by profession who joined Marks Spencer as a management trainee in 1981. Fulfilled a long-time wish to join the motor industry when recruited by Ford UK in 1987. Appointed as the company's sales, planning and analysis manager in 1992. Subsequently spent two years with Toyota UK before joining Mazda UK as sales and operations director in 1995. Moved to BMW as sales director in 1997, and in 1999 became managing director of Rover UK. Became brand director of Volkswagen UK in 2000. Before joining VW, was chief operating officer of Kia Motors Europe

First car:a Mini

Good at:number crunching and team building

Strongest character traits:single-minded and determined