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“Ecological awareness and SUVs are not contradictory”

Hardly anyone knows the current fields of transformation in the automotive industry quite as well as Hildegard Wortmann. And hardly anyone has such a rich and international perspective on the challenges of future mobility. Born in Münster, Hildegard Wortmann started her career at Unilever in 1990 after studying business administration. In addition to her professional career, she completed a Master of Business Administration in London. In 1998 she moved to BMW Group. With the development of the BMW i electric brand, Hildegard Wortmann set a course for e-mobility. In 2016 she took over the product management responsibility for the BMW brand worldwide. From January 2018, she was responsible for the Asia-Pacific sales region, based in Singapore. Hildegard Wortmann has been a member of the Board of Management of AUDI AG with responsibility for Sales and Marketing since July 1, 2019. In an interview, she talks about the major topics of the year for the Volkswagen Group: e-mobility, sustainability and cultural change.

Interview with Hildegard Wortmann, Board Member for Sales and Marketing at Audi

Audi board member Hildegard Wortmann explains why she likes #fridaysforfuture. How corporate culture is changing. And what the Volkswagen Group brands’ have to do to make electromobility the number one propulsion technology quickly.

Ms. Wortmann, you have been working in the automotive industry for more than two decades, and since September you have been the Board Member for Sales and Marketing at Audi. Where do you see the greatest challenges for German automakers today?

The renowned author Simon Sinek sums it up for me: “Start with why!” We have to ask the question “why” and give our brand another “purpose”, an unmistakable USP. Only in this way will we be able to convince our customers of our capabilities in the future. To achieve this, we at Audi are going straight to the core of our brand: for us, “Vorsprung” means more than just what is technically feasible. Rather, “Vorsprung” stands for an attitude, an inner attitude: we want to offer our customers genuine personal added value. This includes sustainable forms of mobility and new digital offerings – and at the same time completely new and surprising concepts that nobody yet, has on their radar screens.

Brands such as Volkswagen and Audi are relying heavily on e-mobility. What must happen to ensure that millions of customers quickly switch to e-cars such as the e-tron or ID.3?

Of course, as a manufacturer we have to create an offer that arouses our customers' appetites. With the ID.3 and the e-tron, Volkswagen and Audi have definitely delivered here – and this is just the beginning: by 2025, the Audi brand alone will have brought around 30 electrified cars onto the market, including 20 pure electric ones. The Audi e-tron Charging Service is available in 20 European markets and provides access to more than 80 percent of all charging stations in Europe. We offer our e-tron customers intelligent solutions for charging with their own photovoltaic electricity. At the same time, it is clear that we as a manufacturer will not be able to expand the charging infrastructure on our own. We need the support of politics and society.

How do you make people aware of the attractiveness of electric mobility?

Anyone who has ever taken a test drive with the Audi e-tron has been completely convinced! For us, this means that we have to create opportunities to make e-cars a tangible experience. The best example is our “Charge&Fly” test drive scheme at Munich Airport. Here, we offer electric cars drivers’, irrespective of brands, the opportunity to charge their vehicle free of charge during their trip. With the Audi e-tron, we drive them directly to the terminal and pick them up again when they return – including the option of a test drive. But also, in classic marketing communication, we think of the electric car as “Outside the Box”. In the company podcast “The future is electric”, we let internal and external experts have their say in order to reduce prejudices against electric mobility. The format was so successful that we have now launched the second season.

How do you feel about the Fridays for Future demonstrations?

The young people address highly relevant social topics and bring a new quality to the discussion. I have a great understanding for their fears and worries and great respect for their determined manner. The direct, regular exchange with young talents of generations X, Y and Z helps me to understand and address this even better. That’s why I’m driving our electrification roadmap forward with a lot of personal commitment. At Audi, we are systematically pursuing the path to becoming a sustainable premium mobility provider.

SUVs are increasingly criticized publicly as climate killers: Should SUV manufacturers’ like Audi not react more clearly to this?

The wishes of our customers are our top priority. And that’s where we come to the conclusion that the trend towards SUVs is unbroken; the SUV share of our deliveries is currently around 40 percent, compared with around 37 percent in 2018. This is why we are demonstrating with our first all-electric production model, the Audi e-tron, that ecological awareness and SUVs are not contradictory from our point of view. With our first electric car, we deliberately chose a segment in which sportiness, a vehicle suitable for everyday use and high growth potential are combined. We also currently have the Audi Q5 as a plug-in hybrid and the Audi Q2 L e-tron specifically for the Chinese market in our portfolio. We are consistently pursuing our electrification and sustainability strategy. These include other electrified SUV models such as the Audi e-tron Sportback, which celebrated its world premiere at the LA Motor Show in November, and the Audi Q4 e-tron.

“Direct exchange at eye level is incredibly important to me.”

Hildegard Wortmann Board Member for Sales and Marketing at Audi

Volkswagen Group and Audi were long regarded as companies with strong hierarchies. How open is the discussion culture at Audi today?

Direct exchange at eye-level is incredibly important to me. That’s why I’m very enthusiastic about how openly I was received by both Audi and my colleagues from the Volkswagen Group right from the start. I get a lot of feedback, be it personally, via e-mail or my LinkedIn channel. And on my LLX tour (Listen – Learn – Exchange) I deliberately seek regular exchanges with young talents. My impression on the basis of all these experiences is that the Volkswagen Group, and thus Audi as well, have achieved a great deal in a very short period of time. The cultural change is absolutely evident.

You once said: “Trust is the most beautiful form of courage” – how do you implement this in your daily work at Audi?

It’s very simple. I joined Audi after more than 20-years with another major car manufacturer – alone, without a network, without buddies. It was a conscious decision for me to start fresh and new with a lot of energy. So, it would be a complete waste of my time as well as the time of my colleagues if I first looked at everyone suspiciously and tested them. I trust my employees to want and achieve the best for the brand just like I do. Only together can we get off to a strong start and lead Audi to new successes.

Although the proportion of women in top management has also risen in Germany, German companies (and not least the automotive industry) are still lagging behind, for example in comparison with the US or Scandinavia. Why?

When I started my job at Audi, at some point I wondered whether I was actually a “Board Member” or a “Female Board Member”. And then I found out that the term “Female Board Member” (Vorständin, in German) had only been in the German dictionary since 2013 – which was actually discussed quite critically in the media at the time. That already made me think. And it strengthened my decision to go public with my title as a “Female Board Member”. Fortunately, more and more colleagues are now doing excellent work and turning a former special case into normality. I too would like to make a small contribution to this and thus pave the way for future generations.

As a member of the Audi Board of Management, you yourself are definitely present in the public eye. In the digital era, would you say it’s the task of board members, now more than ever, to give their companies a face?

Definitely! For me this is one of the most important reasons why I am so active on LinkedIn. I literally show “face” for the company and the Audi brand. After all, more than ever we live in a personalized media world, linking messages with the people who transport them. For me, this means being visible, for example to make the change from Audi towards digitalization and electromobility a tangible experience. Of course, the public must never become an end in itself. For me, the core is always the message, the message behind a performance, an event or a LinkedIn post.

You’ve been on the road a lot, have lived and worked in London, New York & Singapore – at Calvin Klein, amongst others. How important is it today to have international, cross-industry experience at the top management level of the Volkswagen Group?

A global mindset is the most important foundation for our success. We must inspire our customers’ worldwide. That’s why I think international experience is essential – but not just for top management. I am convinced that the earlier and younger you go out into the world, the better. After all, a period abroad is not only a great professional experience, it enriches your entire life. I can only motivate everyone to use such an opportunity whenever the possibility arises!