Bernhard: VW "is in crisis"
Bentley's well-regarded, 43-year-old sales and marketing boss was restless. Finally, a few weeks ago, he got the call - while driving his family to a Swiss holiday destination.
Hallmark pulled his VW Sharan minivan alongside the highway outside Geneva, waving off police officers shooing him back onto the road. There he sat and chatted with VW brand chief Wolfgang Bernhard about taking over Volkswagen of America Inc.
U.S. dealers sounded surprised, even a little stunned, by the change of guard at VWoA this month. Sales boss Len Hunt was out, and dealers hadn't seen it coming. Hunt will swap jobs with Hallmark and become head of sales and marketing at Bentley, the group's British luxury-car maker in Crewe, England. "It's a move up for me," Hunt told Automotive News.
But not everyone sees it that way.
"I was shocked," says Eddie Lee, dealer principal at Lewisville Volks-wagen, north of Dallas. "Volkswagen sales are down. But it would be a stretch to say that Len Hunt was the reason. I don't think they gave him enough time."
Hunt, 49, spent just a year and a half as VW's sales chief in America. Dealers raved about him, but they also profess faith in Bernhard, who made the switch.
At the Frankfurt auto show last week, Bernhard, the former Chrysler group COO, said VW "is in crisis" in America and that "our back is to the wall."
Hallmark had been angling for a place at the Volkswagen brand. When he took the Bentley job in 1999, Hallmark says, he had expected to be in the position for four years. For a year and a half he pressured Wolfsburg to move him up.
He tasted success as a key member of the team that has led Bentley's revival under VW ownership. Both the Continental GT coupe and Flying Spur sedan are sold out in the United States. But Hallmark was getting antsy.
"I put my hand up and said I want to be involved in something where I can make a difference again," he told Automotive News.
Before Bentley, the amicable, British-born executive headed Porsche's importer in Great Britain. He has no experience in North America or at a volume brand.
Hunt had run Audi of America for five years and was in the early stages of overhauling the VW brand in the United States.
"I think the messenger gets beat up," says Mike Sullivan, dealer principal at Volkswagen Santa Monica Inc. in California. "He told them how bad it was month after month. He was back in Germany telling them every time that he needed more budget and that the new Jetta was going to take off but would take off slowly, and they got tired of it. The decisions are made in Germany, and to a degree that messenger has to be careful."
Sullivan had thought that with the new Jetta and Passat launching this year, VW would have given Hunt more time.
"I'm sure that he would have preferred to have a little more closure on what he had started," Sullivan says.
For his part, Hunt sounds delighted with the change. "It's a wonderful opportunity for me," he says. "I spent 15 years at Jaguar cars. I'm a Brit, and I'm closely associated with the luxury market. It's a very natural fit for me.
"It's a career move made in heaven because I move from a country job here to the board of a manufacturer where I have worldwide responsibility."
And Hunt says he is leaving VWoA in fine shape.
'I did the hard work'
"My own view - and it's a bit arrogant - is that I've turned VW around," he says. "We've got the sales in front of last year. The Passat is strong, I've just changed the ad agency, and we've got dealer confidence up. VW is in good hands for the next person to be a superhero. I did the hard work."
Still, Gene Langan, a former VW National Dealer Council chairman, says the timing of the leadership change is odd.
"We're in the middle of our second launch of the year," says Langan, of Gene Langan Volkswagen Inc. in Glastonbury, Conn. "With all the new and exciting things going on, I don't think anybody saw it coming at this time. I think Len knew what this market was all about. He inherited a very difficult situation when he came on in early '04."
VW division's U.S. sales are down 19.1 percent to 141,340 through August this year, and 2004 U.S. sales of 256,111 were off by 15.4 percent from 2003.
Hallmark says he'll take "weeks rather than months" to evaluate VW's situation in the United States. He expects to be running operations within five weeks.
"I will look at what we offer and analyze the competition to death," Hallmark says. "That was a core foundation of our approach at Bentley and at Porsche."
Steve Lewis, dealer principal at Bob Lewis Volkswagen in San Jose, Calif., says he'll go along with whatever Wolfgang Bernhard has in mind for VWoA.
"Bernhard really is the key to this turnaround," Lewis says, "and if this guy from Bentley is his guy, then it's a real good thing."
You may e-mail Diana T. Kurylko at [email protected]
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