Why South Africa will remember VWSA’s boss Thomas Schaefer

Thomas Schaefer. Image: Quickpic
Thomas Schaefer. Image: Quickpic

• Volkswagen South Africa boss Thomas Schaefer to head Skoda.

• Schaefer also worked at Mercedes-Benz SA during the late 1990s.

• His reaction to the Covid-19 crisis, will be his most significant achievement in SA.

• For more motoring stories, go to www.Wheels24.co.za

South Africa is a challenging, but rewarding country to work in as a motoring company CEO. With committed customers and an advanced supplier industry, many international automotive executives relish the opportunity to be seconded to South Africa. Although the local labour and power supply environment can be testing, it also provides inarguable schooling in crisis management and planning. 

It is, therefore, no surprise that those car company executives who do a stint in South Africa, are often propelled to much higher success. 

The latest example of this is Thomas Schaefer, who has been a force for good in the local automotive industry. After graduating from university in Mannheim, with a mechanical engineering degree, Schaefer started his journey in the automotive industry. A journey that would come to include two stints in South Africa. 

Thomas Schaefer

Image: Motorpress

Eastern Cape again and… Again 

Initially employed by Mercedes-Benz, Schaefer worked on production planning and quality assurance for the original A-Class, before being deployed to East London. From 1998-2002 he was quality and vehicle assembly manager at Mercedes-Benz's assembly plant, on the Buffalo River. 

His career would then see him go to Malaysia before resettling in Germany. By the end of 2012, Schaefer transitioned from Mercedes-Benz to VW and a redeployment to South Africa beckoned. 

At this stage, VW was investing significantly in its Uitenhage production asset, and Schaefer was identified as the ideal candidate to optimise the company's South African production and export business. 

He arrived back in the Eastern Cape by late 2014 and what followed were years of outstanding growth for VWSA, despite the country's economic and electricity issues. Schaefer always demonstrated an excellent understanding of how to solve South African business challenges without allowing the perfect to become an enemy of the good. 

When the electricity supply became constrained, he initiated a project to source more power for the Uitenhage production plant from sustainable sources, such as biogas. This R3.5bn build will eventually take VWSA production off-grid. 

Thinking as an industrial engineer with sensitivity to South Africa's unique business environment, Schaefer produced the best performance yet seen at Uitenhage. In 2019 it built 161 954 vehicles, besting the previous record of 137 758, set in 2011. 

African expansion was another chapter of Schaefer's continental VW leadership, with the brand expanding strongly in Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and Rwanda. 

Perhaps Schaefer's most significant achievement will not be remembered as VW's record production numbers and export volumes in 2019. It will be his reaction to the Covid-19 crisis, where VW used its resources to support public health in the Eastern Cape. 

From mask production to accelerated testing support and additional hospital capacity by virtue of converting one of VW's warehouses to a field hospital, Schaefer did not shy away from dealing with the Eastern Cape Covid-19 crisis. In his new position as Skoda CEO, Thomas Schaefer will be based in the Czech Republic and shape the future product vision of VW's tremendously successful European value brand. His legacy in South Africa is assured. 

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