Barry Hoch, 40
Director of product planning, Audi of America
Big break: Being shepherded into product planning from sales at age 25 by then-Audi of America President Johan de Nysschen
Product planners are among the most meticulous automotive critics alive. Their time behind any steering wheel naturally produces an internal running commentary, with notes on each shift point, the merits of each piece of cabin technology, the feel of every bump in the road.
But few industry product planners have the luxury of the extended seat time with a vehicle that Audi of America’s Barry Hoch enjoys, thanks to his rather unusual 1,300-mile round-trip commute between his home in Grand Rapids, Mich., and his office in Herndon, Va.
Years of a commute that would seem like a gigantic pain to most motorists has instead honed Hoch into one of the industry’s brightest and most astute observers of what customers desire and expect when they get behind the wheel.
“Over a 10-hour drive, you can pretty much figure out how everything is operating, whether the car is comfortable, do you observe anything [unusual], how’s the fuel economy, how’s the transmission, do the driver-assistance features work the way they’re intended?” Hoch explained. Though he still flies to save time most weekends, making the drive gives Hoch an in-depth understanding of Audi’s products and those of its competitors.
A graduate of Northwood University and an Audi fan from a very young age, Hoch had every intention of working in a dealership. Instead, while volunteering at the Detroit auto show, his talents caught the eye of an Audi rep who recruited him to skip the dealership and come work for the factory, which he did after grad school, starting in an hourly job writing company leases for Volkswagen of America.
In 2006 — and still in his mid-20s — Hoch was tapped by former Audi of America President Johan de Nysschen to move from operations to product planning and tasked with properly aiming an important future product: the Audi Q5 crossover. Hoch contributed to the Q5’s development by convincing his counterparts in Ingolstadt, Germany, that the Lexus RX — popular in the U.S. but largely unavailable in Europe — was a better competitive target for the Q5 than the BMW X3. The distinction meant that the Q5 “would get wooden inlays, not aluminum, and leather and not cloth” seats, as well as solid color exterior paints, instead of the contrasting paints BMW was doing at the time.
“This was one of my favorite projects to work on because it was one of those awesome times when everyone in the organization was pulling in the same direction,” Hoch said.
— Larry P. Vellequette