Person-to-Person: VW's COO Mark BarnesEnlarge Photo
While Detroit auto show press coverage focused on the World Congress' top dogs, I interviewed an alternative industry insider: VW's COO Mark Barnes. This piece's purpose: introduce you to the People Car Company's people person. His associates describe him as an executive who is "really enthusiastic at products, not just the job."
Barnes is coordinated. Proof: he played percussion in a high school marching band, has a BS in marketing and music from Indiana State University. And VW of America's second in command required the skills of a juggler and the finesse of diplomat, during 2010.
His boss, Stefan Jacoby, for example, ditched VW last June causing a stir. This deflected attention from VW's introduction of its all-new Jetta and Jacoby's pet project, an American-made mid-size sedan.
Barnes stepped in becoming VWoA's interim president, while VW recruited a Brit, Jonathan Browning (AKA Dr. House), as its new American chief. VW dealers, who were concerned (they liked Jacoby's dynamic leadership), say Barnes' people skills convinced them that VW's product plans were sound.
Barnes says his parents, who were proper-schmoozing sticklers, deserve credit for his affability. Those who know him, claim he has a grown-in-Indiana personality.
Wherever it comes from, you notice he's a people person, an interesting skill for a self-described "product man." He greets you as if you're the only person in the room, quickly learns your name, your affiliation and what kind of car you drive. He's tactful, using carefully chosen words to describe what VW is doing to improve durability, quality and reliability of its cars while enriching consumer experience at VW dealers.
2012 Volkswagen PassatEnlarge Photo
Product is the key
Barnes promptly shifts focus from himself to VW's product. For instance, he thanked me for noticing that VW nudged its Jetta nameplate onto the 10-best selling cars in America last month. As Browning says, it's all part of a larger plan: make VW relevant in America. Barnes claims that 60% of new Jetta buyers traded in Fords and Hondas--a seismic shift. When asked whether Ford is the king of conquest sales, his response: "VW is under the radar; it is gaining sales from the competition." He argues price, power equipment and connectivity features fuel the Jetta's sales growth.
When asked about the 2012 Passat, Barnes light up. "It's wonderful vehicle," he says, letting the listener notice the juxtaposition of first letters "w" and "v." He says it hits a "sweet spot" with power goodies, rear-seat space and up to 800 miles per tank in the diesel variant.
He doesn't overwhelm you with the sedan's technical details. Nonetheless, he's resolute. The Passat, Barnes claims, fares well in consumer clinics. Compared with Hyundai's hot Sonata, he maintains the Passat will succeed; "it has the soul of a VW" in a body that's "timeless."
That car comes from "a beautiful place," Barnes adds, an efficient Tennessee plant that's geared for LEED certification. His colleagues claim Barnes is genuinely excited about this car. It's proof that VW is serious: it's going tire-to-tire with stalwarts like the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry.
The keys to VW's re-conquest of the U.S. market are price, quality and a maintenance program, Barnes says. With his infectious optimism, humor and work ethic (traits he developed while working for Hyundai, Nissan and Chrysler), this people-person is convincing: VW's ambitious plans appear plausible. He's marching for orders.