Working one’s whole life for one employer could signal boredom and standing still. But what about if you’ll get quality education and be allowed to grow with increased responsibilities and challenges along the way plus, which is for many a dream, getting to see the world in your work? Most of us would probably not mind staying on with the same company then.
Managing Director for Volvo Cars Malaysia, Mr Keith Schäfer, is a case in point, now into his 29th year with Volvo. And as Volvo is about to launch the new ground breaking XC90 model in Southeast Asia the Swedish flagship brand is perhaps into its most exciting period as a business in decades. Indeed, Keith is as excited as the Volvo car fans are these days about the ‘new Volvo’. Yes, Volvo may have been around for quite a while, but there are many things that are big news and changes within Volvo. The classic car brand is a happening place on all frontiers since the Chinese owners Geely bought the Swedish company from Ford.
Before Keith comments on all the exciting things he gets to share some insights into his personal long-lasting relation with Volvo. He even met his wife through the company when he went to the U.S for summer work! Then it is easy to understand when he says that the company means a lot to him.
“Volvo has taken me around the world. In addition I have received great education through Volvo – an MBA.”
He wanted to work within sales and marketing and indeed he got to do that. But first he had started out with an administrative job. He had good mentors advising him to first learn everything about investment calculations, balance sheet and results.
“Selling cars you can always learn later,” they had told him, as if anticipating and sowing a seed for his long Volvo journey to come.
Opportunities did not take long to come his way.
First stop China
“And all of a sudden I was offered to go to China and assist when Volvo Trucks had their first partnership there, setting up a factory.”
That lasted one and a half years and was the start of Keith crisscrossing the world.
After that he would fulfill his wish and get into doing sales – at a Volvo Trucks dealership in Norway.
After that it was time to head east again, when he came to Malaysia the first time as regional manager for spare parts for trucks and buses, covering many countries in the Asia-Pacific. In the next position it was time for Volvo Cars, as he moved with his family to New Jersey to be responsible for Volvo Cars’ tourist, diplomat and army sales in North America.
“That was a large but exciting step going from commercial to private vehicles. On top of that for a person interested in marketing and sales working within that in the U.S is really where one does the litmus test, since the customers are very demanding and require good service and quality. I learned a lot on that.”
Then it was back to Sweden and help Ford in the process of launching Landrover, and integrating it with Volvo Cars’ sales. Keith then continued with Volvo back home but almost each time his role connects to markets outside Sweden. 29 years mean that he has been able to earn quite an impressive number of achievements and gone through both good and bad times.
One such valuable experience was being appointed to oversee the Russian market – just as the world economy collapsed in late 2008.
“That was a learning experience where we had to cut down personnel and slice the marketing budget with 70 per cent. The dealers, who had invested heavily, nearly cried as their whole market practically disappeared.”
But Keith saw the light at the end of the tunnel, with Volvo being a strong brand and knowing which models were coming. Volvo as a brand not only represents high quality but Sweden has been a role model for many Russians.
“My work was then to try convince them that we would survive this, by helping each other and Volvo ensuring to keep them floating. I am optimist by nature and said that this would turn around. And it did – much faster than we would have thought actually. But it was a lesson learned for the dealers that one should focus not only on selling the car but also on the service part to look after one’s customers. That is where the money is and that was news to them in Russia! So onwards they worked a lot on these soft values and how to keep their customers.”
Keith also learned that for many Russians their car means a lot to them, since they often have to travel very far and through very remote and often unpopulated places, in an often demanding climate.
“It is one milestone I am very proud of that our products are very robust and long-lasting. And that suits the Russian market for sure.”
He also finds the comparison between Malaysia and Russia as interesting; two developing countries, both being very dependent on oil and gas, and wanting to achieve something.”
Back in Kuala Lumpur for his third stint Keith has seen the rapid changes taking place there.
Despite of course wanting to sell as many cars as possible he is of the opinion that public transportation is needed and where Malaysia, however late, is taking big strides towards a much expanded train network.
“In order for society to develop in a smart way and work effectively you need public transportation. And I think one has realized that here also but at a later stage.”
The number of vehicles on the roads is set to increase further towards year 2020, with up to 800 000 cars sold annually in Malaysia.
“But Klang Valley cannot handle these high numbers of cars so you need an infrastructure that can cope with that or you’ll just have chaos.”
Building larger satellite cities will reduce the total amount of travel needed and developing other cities’ infrastructure more will also help. He also believes it will be easier for more Malaysians to start using public transportation.
The high number of traffic accidents in the country is also a problem, and where Volvo’s commitment to safety can play an instrumental role, including ‘City Safety’ which is now standard and unique for the brand. Volvo also has its 2020 vision that nobody should get seriously injured or die in connection to a Volvo.
As they continue to innovate, City Safety is the umbrella name for all of Volvo Cars’ auto brake functions, which are standard equipment. It now covers vehicles, cyclists and pedestrians in front of the car, day and night.
“We’ve done a big journey within this at Volvo to really become premium with our new products, and where we have spent even more on security now. Then, security can be separated into different parts; passive and active. Passive is the structure of the car as such – that it can withstand a collision. Active security is the different systems assisting you, including airbags if a collision happens, city safety with detection etc.”
“With those systems it’s not impossible that we can reach a very low risk of having an accident, because the car takes over the commando to prevent an accident from occurring,” Keith adds.
“The car – and this is a worldwide trend – is getting more and more intellectual. And it thinks faster than you, so if you’re in a queue, driving at 50 km per hour or below, you cannot crash into the car in front of you as the car would automatically stop.”
The re-launched Volvo badge equals world-class safety standards and will continue to do so, while the development is in fast-forward mode within this.
“What was a differentiator yesterday is a qualifier today,” states Keith.
For each car model being launched they have to add more and more advanced security systems to be in the forefront when it comes to security.
However, ‘Premium’ also incorporates many other things today in order to entice buyers, where luxury is essential for those with more spending power.
This is where the highly-anticipated XC90 is Volvo’s answer, bringing the SUV segment into a new dimension and setting a new benchmarking for luxury. With its outstanding combination of luxury, space, versatility, efficiency and safety the model was upon launch presented as: “…the ultimate luxury experience of Scandinavian design. Volvo has never launched a car like this before. This is the car that demonstrates what the name Volvo now means.”
Aside great quality when driving, a luxury experience inside the car is very much in focus for Volvo now, with the Chinese market being a driver. In the XC90 a limousine-oriented concept offers a superlative environment for relaxed comfort or doing business.
“This is something we are looking at much more than previously, because there is a need for this and which is increasing all the time. And to be in this game we are setting a benchmark with the new XC90 to be premium and not only talk about it,” comments Keith.
“It is in line with our SPA platform to work both on equipment and quality, where the XC90 is a no compromise when it comes to quality.”
The Research and Development of Volvo Car Group has said that they are raising the bar to the very top of the premium league when it comes to quality and technology level in every vital area.
The XC90 marks a new chapter in the brand’s history, capturing its future design direction and incorporating its own range of new technologies via this Scalable Product Architecture (SPA) technology and Drive-E powertrain family.
SPA allows developing a model range consisting of cars based on the same joint modules and interfaces, scalable systems and components and built in a flexible production system.
This is being implemented at the own plant in Malaysia where the country’s first ever hybrid car will be assembled starting in 2016. And this hybrid will be top-of-the-line, with everything added as standard in the car.
“This is in order to offer the Malaysians the best we can offer. We do not compromise when this is our flagship car, but do the best possible. We have worked with Malaysia providers to achieve this within the CKD import rules.”
The new XC90 thus also paves the way for a portfolio of exciting new cars to come in the following years.
Swedish all the way
One of the most striking features is a tablet-like, entirely new touch screen console forming Volvo’s all-new in-car control system. The design of this console helps create an interior that is modern, spacious and uncluttered.
Volvo has come up with a Swedish product. That incorporates Swedish design, functionality and simplicity! But we do not compromise on quality by making it simple,” says Keith.
”This has set an entirely new standard and will come in all other models to be launched.”
“For us in Malaysia it’s a challenge to communicate to the customers that we now stand for much more than previously,” says Keith.
“But the path leading to our customers hearts is the Swedish way in what we offer. Our products are Swedish and stand for such values. We base our car sales on that. And, importantly, when you buy a Volvo we have a commitment to look after you as our customer.”
They know 100 percent – and it is important to them – that the car is Swedish, confirms Keith. And it is important for them.
“And for us it is important to show that it is built in Malaysia. They will remember older car models and get surprised when we tell them we have been here since 1966.”
Keith describes Volvo’s customers’ attributes as quite unique: “They have the same background all over the world; they are intellectuals who want to be one step ahead of the pack, are well-informed, want value for money, are good at negotiating, and know what they want. Volvo owners are interested in cars, security, the environment etc. They often know more than our sales persons, which is challenging. And that means you must address these people in a certain way, as they are interested and you must communicate with them.”
Social media is the melody in countries like Malaysia; which is just skyrocketing as a tool for marketing and communication.
We are embracing this, and it goes further than just creating a lifestyle around our products. This is about a way of life; we sell a car wanting to take care of and for that person to have a better life. We’ll be successful compared to our competitors if we can accomplish that.”
In 2016 Keith Schäfer is moving on to a position at the Volvo Cars headquarters, but he is currently based in Shanghai, as Head of Operations for the Asia-Pacific business outside China.