Thomas Ulbrich’s career at Volkswagen really took off 15 years ago. The now 51-year old engineer managed to strike a deal with the powerful union IG Metall to produce the new minivan Touran at lower costs. Workers at VW’s subsidiary Auto 5000 agreed to produce the vehicle without demanding the higher pay that comes with the union’s collective labor agreement.
To this day, Mr. Ulbrich’s achievement is seen as his “exam” that allowed him to climb VW’s corporate ladder. On February 1, the manager will take the next step and fill the newly-created position of e-mobility board member at VW passenger cars, the biggest subsidiary of the Volkswagen Group that includes Porsche, Audi, MAN trucks and Seat.
VW, the world’s largest carmaker ahead of Toyota and GM, wants to play a leading role in the market for electric cars, where Tesla, BYD and Nissan have been stealing the headlines these days. The Wolfsburg-based firm, still reeling from Dieselgate, plans to introduce mass-market electric vehicles in 2020, starting with the I.D. This new model is an all-electric hatchback “like a Golf on the outside and a Passat on the inside,” Herbert Diess, head of VW passenger cars and Mr. Ulbrich’s boss, said last year.
After the I.D. launch, VW Group will introduce electric versions of several cars in quick succession, including an SUV and a battery-powered version of the iconic Volkswagen camper van. It will invest €20 billion ($24.1 billion) in electric vehicles by 2025, when it wants to have 50 models on the market, selling more than 2.5 million a year. That’s a quarter of last year’s annual sales.
Mr. Ulbrich, who started at VW in 1989 and had two stints in China, will have to manage this task. The engineer will oversee VW’s development of electric car parts, which can be used throughout the group for all types of vehicles and brands. Mr. Ulbrich’s experience — he currently heads production and logistics at VW passenger cars — makes him perfectly fit for the new job. “The success of electric cars will depend on production, so it is only logical that a production expert is getting the job,” a top manager at headquarters in Wolfsburg told Handelsblatt.
Within a few years’ time, Mr. Ulbrich will have to establish reliable facilities throughout the world to make hundreds of thousands electric cars. With its Model 3, Tesla has learned how hard it is to mass produce a new vehicle. The US carmaker had to postpone production targets several times.
With almost 30 years of experience at VW, Mr. Ulbrich knows how to play the game. Over the past two years, he managed to lift the VW brand’s profitability to 3.5 percent of revenue from less than 1 percent at the start of 2016. If he successfully establishes VW’s electric car manufacturing, he could further rise in Volkswagen’s hierarchy and make it to the group executive board one day.
Stefan Menzel writes about the auto industry focusing on Volkswagen. Gilbert Kreijger is an editor with Handelsblatt Global. To contact the authors: email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org