Volkswagen Taps Ex-GM Exec as CEO of U.S. Unit

Jonathan Browning, new CEO of VW USA
Jonathan Browning, new CEO of VW USA

Volkswagen has turned to a veteran of two U.S. automakers to head its U.S. operations. The German automaker said Monday that Jonathan Browning, who has worked for both General Motors and Ford Motor (F), will take over as chief executive of Volkswagen Group of America on Oct. 1.

Browning, 51, replaces Stefan Jacoby, who stepped aside in June to become CEO at Swedish luxury carmaker Volvo, after Ford sold the unit to China's Zhejang Geely Holding Group. Browning assumes his role at a time when Volkswagen is eager to boost its U.S. sales in a bid to supplant Toyota Motor (TM) as the world's largest automaker.

"Our goal is very simple: We want to set Volkswagen out among the leading brands in this country," said Volkswagen sales chief Christian Klingler during a webcast from the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., not far from the company's U.S. headquarters in Herndon, Va. By 2018, Klingler said, Volkswagen wants to sell more than 800,000 new VWs and about 200,000 Audis. "It is not a dream. It is a plan," he said.

Counting Baby Boomer Memories

Browning, a U.K. native who has lived in the U.S. on two occasions and holds a master's in business administration from Duke University, faces a formidable task in boosting Volkswagen's U.S. sales to the 1 million-vehicle mark. Last year, Volkswagen combined sold about 242,000 VWs and Audis in the U.S. Through August, the company sold 172,747 VWs and 65,429 Audis for the year.

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Still, Browning said, Volkswagen enjoys a "fond" reputation, especially among members of the baby boom generation, who remember the company's iconic Beetle and Microbus vehicles popular in the U.S. during the 1960s. "Our task is not only to create this emotional connection with the U.S. consumer, it's also about bringing to life the realities of the commitment that [Volkswagen Group] is making to the U.S."

Those commitments include the construction of a $1 billion auto assembly plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., that starting next year will build a yet-unnamed Volkswagen-brand midsize car for the U.S. market. Browning said the plant has already hired more than 1,000 workers and will add more in coming weeks and months.

"We've set ourselves a very big challenge in terms of these goals, but I'm also very confident that we can do that," Browning said, citing strong 2010 sales figures as well as a "soundly profitable" dealer network. "So, we've got a good start," he said.

Beyond VW and Audi: Bentley and Bugatti

Though Volkswagen is a small player in the U.S. market, it dominates Europe, South America and, more importantly, China, home to the world's largest auto market.

Worldwide, VW has reported sales rose 13% during the first eight months of the year to 4.7 million vehicles, compared to the same period a year ago. In addition to the company's namesake Volkswagen and Audi brands, VW also owns the Skoda and Seat nameplates as well as luxury brands Bentley, Bugatti and Lamborghini.

Reports that Browning would be named first surfaced Sunday in a report in The Wall Street Journal. Browning joined Volkswagen in June and currently leads the automaker's global national sales companies, Volkswagen said in a written statement. Previously, he served as vice president of European sales at GM from 2001 to 2008, before becoming vice president of global sales. Browning worked at Ford from 1997 to 2001, first as Ford Europe's marketing director before moving on to manage the Jaguar brand.