Interview with Audi CEO Bram Schot
The Ayrton Senna artwork moves with Schot to Ingolstadt, Audi’s home town. Officially appointed the brand’s CEO at the start of this year, Schot was already running the company since June 19th of 2018, when former Audi CEO, Rupert Stadler, was arrested for his role in the dieselgate scandal. He is also the only non-German in the VW Group board.
Before becoming CEO, Schot was responsible for Audi’s sales and marketing, after a success story at VW’s commercial vehicle division. He was not involved in the defeat software scandal. His move to become CEO went naturally. The board of directors and his colleagues agreed Schot was the best choice and Schot himself didn’t have to be convinced.
Schot now lives in Southern Germany and has a home base on the Amsterdam canals. We meet him on his way home at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport’s VIP lounge. His briefcase is full of documents, homework for next weeks’ meetings. His ancestors were Scottish and moved to Rotterdam to do business. That’s where he gets his pragmatic and result-driven approach. “Efforts only partly interest me. I pay my people to get results, not to try their best,” Schot says.
Wheels and cars
From a young age, cars and wheels were a part of Schot’s life. His father was on the board of directors of truck manufacturer DAF but died at a young age. Schot himself went to DAF for an internship. The truck business was a good training, with fierce competition and penny-pinching customers. “We had to be inventive with little means. Customer-centric, no-nonsense but with heart.”
During his national military service, Schot lead a 40-man platoon where he learned to manage sometimes difficult to handle people. He also learned to excel and show he was a colleague on top of being a leader. A trainee function at ABN Amro bank that followed was not a success, too static. He was approached by Mercedes-Benz trying to rejuvenate the company. He worked there from 1987 to 2011, the last five years as president-director of the company in Italy.
He joined his work with strategic management projects in the Daimler concern. Schot was coached by former Daimler CEO, Jürgen Schrempp, who he describes as an open manger that taught him a lot. During his last years at Mercedes-Benz, Schot competed in the classic Italian Mille Miglia car race with a 300 SL Gullwing from the company’s museum. By his side was then Philips CEO, Gerard Kleisterlee, who describes Schot as a nice guy, relaxed and enjoying the experience of granting other people pleasure.
Schot moved on to Volkwagen. He was looking for a new work environment and in serious talks with a private equity company but ended up at a car company once more. He asked former CEO, Martin Winterkorn, for broad function, not technical but customer-oriented and entrepreneurial. In his new function as CEO, Schot got what he asked for. He has to regain trust for the company after dieselgate, which cost Audi its CEO and a one billion euro fine.
“It was a shock and it paralyzed the company for a moment, but you shouldn’t get stuck for too long. Without downplaying the matter, you have to concentrate on other things.” According to Schot, the trust in the company is not lost. “Client satisfaction is on a high level. I think we have found a good balance between taking responsibility for our actions and apologizing, while also becoming self-conscious. What happened is not something to be proud of, but we can be proud of our future.”
As the company’s new CEO, Schot has to improve Audi sales (-3.5 % last year) and get the company ready for electric and driverless cars, while also concentrating on the switch from owning a car to the adoption of ‘mobility solutions’. According to Schot, Audi can play a key roll here, saying the gap between product and service has never been this narrow. The time of hefty strategy books and five year plans is over, just as is the time car established manufacturers had a competitive advantage over newcomers.
Schot prefers spending his time to get the right people in the right place to get his company into the future. “If you want to be successful, you need simple processes. Those processes are created by people with confidence. Mediocrity creates complexity.” If processes can be simplified, people have more time to think and dream about the future. “I’m not suggesting 90.000 Audi employees start staring out the window dreaming but we have to think about ‘next practices’ as much as ‘best practices’.”
According to Schot, the secret of a good manager is understanding the economic machine and the core business of the company. And knowing where the passion is. The core of the company is where those three aspects overlap. Schot welcomes suggestions for improvement from all layers of the company and answers them personally. “We need a collective brain, collective intelligence from the whole company.”
I’m not interested in hierarchy. People invite me to have a coffee, I play soccer with guys from the factory. I love doing that.” After three decades in an international corporate environment, Schot thinks his best years are still ahead of him: “I feel forty years old, I have heaps of energy. I stay fit. I drive them mad.”