Hein Schafer, 40
Senior vice president of product marketing and strategy for Volkswagen brand, Volkswagen Group of America
Big break: Given the task to turn around a struggling Volkswagen Brazil with new products designed specifically for South American market
To map the rough contours of Hein Schafer’s globe-trotting career with Volkswagen, one need not look too far beyond his family dinner table.
“I’ve got a 6-year-old daughter — she’s South African — and a 4-year-old son — he’s Brazilian,” said the native of Port Elizabeth, South Africa. “But there’s no American kid — yet.”
Schafer’s multicontinent family is the happy byproduct of a career that started in accounting with PwC in South Africa but, through a series of deliberate steps, now finds the tall executive with the distinctive Afrikaans accent as the senior vice president of product marketing and strategy for Volkswagen brand.
Schafer is primarily responsible for determining what vehicles Volkswagen’s 650 U.S. dealers are able to sell, how they’ll be packaged to appeal to American tastes and how they’ll compete with nameplates from other brands. It’s a key job, especially at a brand with a long-term goal to return to the 5 percent market share it enjoyed in the U.S. in the early 1970s.
So how does a former South African accountant end up deciding what trim levels will be on an Atlas in Atlanta? For that, you have to thank Brazil.
Schafer joined Volkswagen in South Africa after just six months at PwC and worked his way into a position in product marketing. Volkswagen — which has an aggressive program that regularly sees executives transfer temporarily into other markets to broaden their experience — tapped Schafer for an open product planning role in Brazil, where the once-dominant German brand had fallen on hard times.
In 2015, Schafer, his wife and daughter moved to Sao Paulo, “even though we couldn’t speak a word of Portuguese.” He immersed himself both into the language and Volkswagen’s troubled local lineup. “Between myself and the head of engineering, we went at this whole thing, working 12- to 14-hour days,” Schafer recalled.
They came up with a number of products to resurrect the local market, including the T-Cross subcompact crossover and Tarok, a compact unibody pickup, that could be produced locally at a profit. The plan worked.
“When I finally left there in 2018 [to move to Volkswagen of America], the share had gotten back to 13 or 14 percent,” Schafer said. It’s a trick he’d like to repeat in the U.S.
Schafer knows the U.S. market is much larger and far more complex and competitive than Brazil and that Volkswagen is somewhat hampered here because it doesn’t command the premium pricing it can in other markets. That adds more complexity to the product planning role.
“In the U.S., we’re forced to be an affordable brand, and we want to be affordable, but we don’t want to be a cheap brand,” Schafer explained.
“From my side, the clear intent is that I want to push very hard to change the situation that we’re in” as Volkswagen of America continues to recover its reputation with consumers after the diesel emissions scandal, Schafer explained. “Much like Brazil, I want to be part of this success story.”
— Larry P. Vellequette