Soh Weiming, one of Volkswagen Group’s most senior executives in China, is leaving the automaker after more than 15 years and considering an offer to become Renault’s China country head, according to people familiar with the matter.
Soh may join Renault as soon as next month, the people said, asking not to be identified because the discussions are private. A spokesperson for VW China confirmed Soh had left the company, declining to comment further, while Renault in China said it didn’t have any information at the current time. Soh declined to provide details on his future plans when contacted via WeChat.
Something of an iconic figure in China’s auto industry, Soh helped to establish VW’s Mobility Asia unit in 2018. A wholly owned subsidiary of VW, Mobility Asia is at the heart of the carmaker’s high-tech efforts in the region, driving research and development around autonomous driving, artificial intelligence and smart-car ecosystems.
Most recently, Soh was head of China sales at VW and previously worked at Daimler in China.
In an internal VW memo announcing Soh’s departure seen by Bloomberg, the executive was lauded as a “trailblazer” who boosted sales and built a strong local team that made VW a “backbone force of the Chinese automotive industry.” Mobility Asia was his “brainchild,” it said.
Luring a manager like Soh could indicate Renault is rethinking its position on China as the market booms. Last year, the company scaled back its already limited presence in Asia’s biggest economy, transferring its 50 percent stake in a local venture to partner Dongfeng Motor Corp. as the pandemic weighed on demand. It still has other pacts with Chinese partners, however, for electric cars and light commercial vehicles.
Renault CEO Luca de Meo said in a recent interview with Automotive News Europe that he was open to returning to the Chinese market at some point, with a "completely different" approach.
"I believe based on my VW Group experience that China is the locomotive of the whole automotive industry and will be for the next 20 years," de Meo said. "A lot of things will happen there from a product point of view, a technology point of view and a business model point of view, so we have to be there one day."
Electric-vehicle demand in what is the world’s biggest car market is set to soar over the coming years as consumers embrace cleaner automobiles and the cost of EVs tumbles. Research firm Canalys said in a report earlier this week that EV sales in China may grow more than 50 percent in 2021.
“Prospects are very good,” said Chris Jones, Canalys’s chief automotive analyst. “There is already an excellent network of standardized public EV chargers, good government support and now a return to strong consumer demand.”