New at the Top
Position: Chief executive and president, Volkswagen Group of America, which recently relocated its corporate headquarters to Herndon.
Career Highlights: Executive vice president, marketing and sales, Volkswagen AG; president and chief executive, Mitsubishi Motors, Europe; executive vice president, Asia-Pacific region, Volkswagen AG; secretary general, Volkswagen AG; and head of controlling, Volkswagen Audi Nippon, Japan.
Education: MBA, University of Cologne.
Personal: Lives in the District with wife, Roberta Bantel.
How did you get to where you are?
I have been lucky in that I have worked for some of the most brilliant people in this industry -- excellent engineers, smart businesspeople and true leaders. I learned from the tremendous opportunities these individuals provided me throughout my career. This is especially true with the global assignments, which taught me a great deal about how to work across cultural differences.
One of the most instructive and exhausting posts I had was as secretary general for Volkswagen AG. I learned more in those years than at any other time in my career, specifically about the importance of hard work, of speaking your mind and not being afraid to execute change. Ferdinand Piëch, chairman of Volkwagen Group at that time, and my boss, was a role model for these ideas. He is an engineering genius who has the ability to use the smallest of technical details to develop an entire business case.
My career experiences have also told me that a company is only as good as its people, and its people are only as good as the leadership is willing to let them be. It's important to give people room to think big. I've also learned that thinking big and executing an aggressive strategy does not come without the potential for mistakes along the way.
I am an athlete at heart and have always been inspired by the challenge of climbing Mount Everest. On a trip there recently, I was reassured to remember that most climbers do not reach the top the first time. It sometimes takes three, four or even more tries. That is something we have faced at the Volkswagen Group in the U.S. While the company has grown exponentially around the globe, we have lagged behind in the U.S. I think it is fair to say that we have looked at the failures of the past, learned from them, and are positioned to grow here in America. Part of our learning was that we needed to do a better job of listening.
I mentioned earlier that my global posts have been instructive in learning about working with different cultures. While I was in Asia, I was setting up business in China, Thailand and Japan. Those negotiations taught me the importance of patience (something I'm not always good at) and of silence. A person can learn a lot more from listening than from talking, and when it comes to business deals in Asia, the first person who talks is often the least likely to benefit from the final deal. I have worked for a German company in Asia and an Asian company in Europe. This has given me an interesting perspective on culture and taught me the importance of authenticity. Authenticity coupled with respect is accepted around the globe, and is a good business practice.
In the automobile business, this is very important because car driving is very unique to a country and its people. Here in America, a car is not just a something that gets you from point A to point B. Particularly in Washington, with the long commutes, people spend a lot of time in their vehicles, which can almost seem to be mobile offices.
This is not as much the case in Germany, so it's important that we listen and understand this and build a car that suits American driving needs, while staying authentic and true to our brands.
-- Judith Mbuya