Et seems as if the dead in Mladá Boleslav are still watching over their life’s work. In a cemetery in the south of the Czech industrial city, Václav Klement and Václav Laurin are buried on a small hill overlooking the Škoda factory, which spreads over large parts of the city.
More than a century ago, the two inventors Klement and Laurin laid the foundation stone for the car manufacturer Škoda in the town near Prague, and they are still revered like saints, even though the company has long belonged to the Volkswagen Group and is now even more globally oriented , to emerging countries like India or Vietnam. “Škoda has strong roots in the Czech Republic, and of course you can feel that in the people,” says CEO Klaus Zellmer. “They carry the brand in their hearts and are ready to fight for it.”
Zellmer, 54, has been at the helm of the company for three months. He grew up in the VW Group, worked for Porsche for a long time and is now to realign one of the best-known and most successful volume brands in Europe in the Czech Republic. A difficult balancing act. Because the pride of the Czech workforce in high-quality and at the same time inexpensive cars such as the mid-range compact car Octavia must be integrated into overriding corporate interests. There was always trouble with the powerful Wolfsburg-based brand VW, which felt pressured by cheap offers from Škoda.
“On par with VW”
The Škodovácí (in English: Skodians), as they call themselves, have long since gotten used to the fact that Germans run by far the most important company in the country. Zellmer has now brought another mortgage with him. Most recently, he was the head of sales for almost two years on the board of the VW brand. Many in the workforce may have interpreted this as a sign that the group in Wolfsburg is putting its Czech brand in its place.
In a conversation with the FAZ, his first major interview as boss at the headquarters in Mladá Boleslav, he emphasizes all the more clearly that he is by no means concerned with devaluing the company. “Škoda has to be on an equal footing with VW in order to be able to achieve its goals,” he says. “But that doesn’t mean that we do the same thing, but that we focus on our strengths and clearly differentiate, for example through the design language.”
A clear, simpler look and functionality of the vehicles should differentiate Škoda more, without curtailing the range of cars, on the contrary: the Czechs are still attacking even in higher-priced segments. At the same time, they are to launch new models in the entry-level segment. Goal: More clout in the struggle with low-priced rivals, also in emerging countries – with the result that Škoda will appeal to such a broad target group as no other brand in the VW Group.
Zellmer makes no secret of the fact that it will not be easy to reconcile these demands. “We are increasing Škoda’s footprint in the global automotive industry,” he says. “It’s a big challenge, but we’re happy to take it on.”
The first big step on the world market under his aegis is entering Vietnam. In the Southeast Asian country, Škoda signed contracts with a local partner on Friday, and sales should now pick up speed. “We see great growth potential for Škoda there,” announces Zellmer. His first goal is to sell 30,000 vehicles a year, and then 40,000 by the end of the decade, which corresponds to a market share in Vietnam of 4 percent – with ambitions for further growth.