While President of Audi China Joachim Wedler does try to maintain a perspective of the broader picture, it hasn’t stopped him from getting up close and personal with Audi’s products. “I test drove for countless hours and thousands of kilometres to better understand our cars,” Joachim says. “I even drove all the cars of our competitors. My neighbours often wondered why I constantly brought home a different car.”
This is the kind of passion that has characterised Joachim’s tenure as President, ever since he started in 2015. Though Joachim is only now stepping down from the role, he’s leaving behind the legacy of a thriving automotive business in China. In 2017 and 2018, Audi China’s sales figures hit record levels, thanks to partnerships with local manufacturers and the production of vehicles customised for the Chinese markets.
It’s an auspicious year for Joachim to move on, given he’ll have seen Audi China through to the end of its third decade. “This year, Audi is celebrating 30 years in China,” he says. “You can imagine that Audi has achieved many milestones during this time. It all started with the production of the Audi 100 under license in the Changchun plant of FAW (a Chinese state-owned manufacturer) in 1988. That made Audi the first foreign premium car brand to be produced in China.”
But at no point in Audi’s journey did it rest on its laurels. The Audi China story is one of firsts, of innovation and experimentation. Joachim notes a few milestones of which the company is particularly proud – the introduction of the A6 (later named A6L) in 1999, for one. This model was noteworthy as a local variant of the popular A6 model – a long wheelbase version, specifically designed for the needs of Audi’s Chinese customer base.
“In the early 90s, the Audi board of management appointed both a dedicated team and board member for China. This strong internal base, plus our cooperation with a potent state-owned partner was the key to accelerate our business in the country. A high localisation rate and the most stringent quality standards were also crucial drivers for success,” Joachim explains.
“Audi has a long tradition in China. We used our head start to develop a deep understanding of the Chinese customer. We listen to our customers and learn from them. This gives us the ability to recognise trends before others do. Audi is an innovative brand that puts customers first.
“Our highly skilled engineers make sure that Chinese customer preferences are included in the early worldwide development phase. A powerful trend-scouting team helps us to better understand the growing needs and demands of the Chinese customers.”
Today, Audi produces seven different models in China, each specially developed to better suit the local market. This is thanks in part to the manufacturer’s R&D centre in Beijing. Opened in 2013, it’s the largest of Audi’s R&D centres outside Europe, and exists to pursue the company’s motto of “in China, for China”. Each engineering division at Audi’s headquarters is represented in the Beijing R&D centre, allowing the company to introduce total innovation across China.
These milestones define the story of Audi’s success in China, a story that Joachim has been only too proud to be a part of. “These many trailblazer moments clearly show that Audi had an intensive focus on China from the beginning,” says Joachim.
Joachim attributes at least part of Audi China’s success to the quality and strength of its partnerships with local companies. Joachim lists the aforementioned FAW and its joint venture with Volkswagen, in which Audi became a 10% stakeholder. Together, FAW-Volkswagen and Audi plan to more than double the locally built Audi portfolio in the next five years. A broad and attractive model range is important to stay ahead in today’s strong competition within the premium segment.
Most recently, Joachim has helped establish a partnership with SAIC, another state-owned manufacturer. He expects this to accelerate both the pace and diversity of Audi’s development, a fitting achievement with which to leave behind the presidency.
The key to each of these partnerships has been Joachim’s efforts to reach a win-win solution for all of Audi China’s suppliers, regarding it as absolutely crucial to Audi’s continued success. His strategy for ensuring this involves anticipating the needs of suppliers, to ensure that Audi can offer shared benefits to all parties.
These aren’t empty words; Audi and its partners have both seen tangible benefits from their collaboration. “We have helped local suppliers to develop a big production base and we have attracted international suppliers to follow us to China,” Joachim explains. “As the Chinese automotive industry picked up speed, these international suppliers were at an advantage.
“Audi is an innovative brand that puts customers first.”
“They had already set up their facilities and infrastructure in China and consequently were able to quickly adjust to the growing China business. The Chinese suppliers on the other hand not only have strong relationships with the VW Group today, but also have become internationally active.”
It’s clear that Audi hasn’t neglected the importance of local suppliers – more than 60% of parts for Audi manufacturing are domestically sourced and all have benefited from this international exposure. Similarly, the excellence displayed by Audi’s suppliers has translated into excellence in each model produced by Audi in China. A vehicle produced at Audi’s Headquarters in Ingolstadt, Germany, is of equal workmanship when compared to a car produced in Changchun, the first of Audi’s Chinese production sites. Joachim’s principles of mutual benefit are far from just talk.
It’s this supplier excellence that has helped Audi China cultivate a strong sense of trust among its customer base. The manufacturer’s reputation is one of a respected, reliable international brand, and this has been recognised numerous times within China. This year, for example, Audi in China was awarded first place in both the JD Power’s Sales Satisfaction Index and the Costumer Service Index, for the sixth time in a row.
“Chinese customers value reliable international brands,” Joachim says. “That is, brands which are associated with safety, quality, the latest technology, attractive design and enjoyable driving. Audi fully caters to these expectations.”
Audi in China would not have enjoyed its record sales levels these past few years, had Joachim not been leading the company with a clear goal in mind. He finds this dedication absolutely necessary to effectively lead a company, and make the right decisions. Without focus and a clear target, Joachim believes that making a wrong choice is inevitable.
In order to maintain a clear decision process, Joachim creates a space where the facts can be examined objectively, clearly and with the support of his team. Joachim describes his motto as “More facts, less emotions”, which means he defers to the judgement of experts on his team, and trusts their ability to contribute to the success of Audi. This level of determination and clarity is necessary to maintain assuredness in the face of a rapidly evolving industry.
“When you make a decision, stick to it, as long as its base facts do not change substantially. If the circumstances change, then review your decision,” he says. You have to accept that our environment is rapidly absorbing new ideas and technologies. People’s tastes change and fresh trends emerge. One needs to review decisions in reasonable time and make new ones.”
To ensure that his team is at their best, Joachim makes sure to strike a careful balance between being a leader and being a member of the team himself. He gives guidance, outlining his clear vision for Audi China, but knows when to let his team members shine. Most importantly, he sees the role of leader as being a role model; a team carefully watches their leader’s behaviour, so Joachim believes that a sense of conviction and good behaviour is essential to unifying a team. Money is a partial motivator, he says, but ultimately what drives a team is shared values.
“You can only be successful if you have a motivated, dedicated and highly professional team,” he says. “You have to trust your team, treat it with respect and protect it. In critical situations, you need to take responsibility for the team which helps to create loyalty.
“Eliminate barriers so your team can deliver their best performance. At times, it might be necessary to reshape teams according to the situation. It’s like being a football coach. Sometimes you have to bring a new player in and take another one off. Perhaps he was only in the wrong position.”
“You can only be successful if you have a motivated, dedicated and highly professional team.”
Throughout his career, Joachim has operated on four principles to ensure he has been the best leader he can be, and to help his team work at their best. The first is to avoid leading with fear, while the second is not to expect unrealistic targets of his team. The third is to be authentic, by which he means that a leader should ask only for the kind of performance that he or she would be willing to personally invest into the company. Finally, he makes it a point to avoid getting entangled in internal politics. Again, this is about being a role model for one’s own team, providing a visible example of the right kind of behaviour.
Joachim also warns against over-dependence on quantitative indicators of success – he believes it can divorce a team from the bigger picture, the overall mission. “On one hand, figures are important,” he explains. “On the other hand, you must be careful not to steer a team only based on KPIs. This can result in the team losing sight of the big picture. Instead, consider qualitative measurements. If a team recognises that their leader cares and that they can evaluate their success also based on soft factors, it will give them huge motivational momentum.
“How can you avoid losing sight of the big picture? Gain a deep understanding of the current trends. Learn to read the future in the numbers and statistics available today. The product decisions we made based on our analysis and projections became the foundation of highly successful car models.”
Riding high on this wave of success, Audi China’s introduction of innovative new models continues unabated. Anticipating the rise in popularity of the non-internal combustion vehicles, Audi is introducing its first fully electric car next year in China; in 2025, Audi hopes to sell 800,000 electric vehicles worldwide, and China is sure to be a prime market for reaching this goal. Meanwhile, with growing interest in smart cars, the company has also signed an agreement with Chinese telecoms manufacturer Huawei to cooperate on Intelligent Connected Vehicles.
At the same time, with more people in China moving into affluent levels of society, Audi is being opened up to an ever-larger customer base. “I sense China is on its way to becoming a trendsetter market,” Joachim says. “We will ramp up our R&D activities here.
I can imagine that, in the future, China is the greenhouse for innovation and substantially defines worldwide car development.”
Joachim’s many years as Head of Product Management gave him a better understanding of the evolution of trends than most. As part of a team charged with deciding the direction of the Audi and Lamborghini brands, he had to anticipate what customers worldwide would want from a luxury vehicle in five or even 10 years. This is why he ended up driving so many of Audi’s vehicles, and that of its competitors. In the end, it paid off; the brands released highly successful models like the Q8, the Audi e-tron and the Lamborghini URUS.
Indeed, if he hadn’t developed this keen sense of foresight and forward thinking, Joachim would have had a harder time in arranging partnerships and deals for Audi China. “Here, I have learned that negotiating is like playing chess,” Joachim explains. “If you only concentrate on the first move, you will lose. You need to prepare a strategy and not only think about the second, third, but also about the fourth and the fifth move.”
So now that he’s approached the end of his tenure as President of Audi China, how does Joachim see everything he’s achieved in these few short years? Having been part of a stretch of 13 years of Audi’s journey in China, he has helped institute tremendous developments in his time, and has set the course for Audi China to continually reinvent the industry: in the beginning as First Vice-President Finance at FAW-Volkswagen in Changchun from 2006–08, later as Head of Product Management, AUDI AG, developing products apt to the local market, and then finally as Audi China President. He’s also strengthened Audi’s partnership with state manufacturer FAW and established a new relationship with SAIC, further stabilising the luxury car manufacturer’s position in China.
Joachim is naturally proud of these accomplishments, and he credits one thing with his ability to have seen them through: passion. “It is important to wholeheartedly believe in what you do, so that when you look back and ask, ‘Was it tough?’, you can say, ‘Yes, very much so, but the effort paid off.’ So despite all the challenges, passion can see you through.”