Logistics veteran Dr Susanne Lehmann is now managing director for Volkswagen Group in Malaysia, leading the group’s supply chain, production and sales in the country as the OEM seeks to increase volume there and in wider south-east Asia.
Lehmann officially took over as managing director of Volkswagen Group Malaysia in December, succeeding Antonio Pinto. She will lead the carmaker’s local assembly plant in Pekan, which is operated with a partner DRB-Hicom, along with the company’s wider operation and distribution strategy.
“I am happy and grateful to come to this wonderful country as the new managing director. Based on my experience in Europe, America and China, I hope to build on the successful development in the south-east Asia region,” said Lehmann in a statement.
Lehmann has worked for the VW Group since 1996 in a wide range of supply chain, logistics, production and operational roles. She was most recently executive director of logistics at SAIC-Volkswagen, the carmaker’s largest joint ventures in China, where she oversaw supply chain management during and after the country’s pandemic lockdowns, working closely with suppliers and logistics providers to overcome restrictions and congestions across the supply chain. She also oversaw the launch of new production models and increases in electric vehicle production at the joint venture.
Prior to SAIC-VW, Lehmann was senior director of production for the North America region for VW in Mexico, also steering the company through Covid shutdowns and recovery, and leading decarbonisation strategies in logistics. She has previously held other leading logistics roles in Germany, Mexico and Asia.
In Malaysia, Susanne Lehmann will lead highly complex operations, still small in volume terms, but one in which the group is aiming to strengthen its foothold both in the domestic market and in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) trade bloc. The carmaker is currently expanding its dealer network across Malaysia, as well as adding models to its plant with DRB-Hicom in Pekan. Since 2019, VW Group has run a regional aftersales parts distribution centre in the port of Tanjung Pelepas, which was relocated from Singapore to serve the Asia Pacific region.
Antonio Pinto, who had led VW Group Malaysia since October 2021, has taken early retirement according to the company. He joined Volkswagen in 1994 and has held production roles in Portugal, South Africa and North America. He was vice-president of production and logistics at Volkswagen de Mexico and was later head of the carmaker’s plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Lehmann’s successor at SAIC-VW is Pan Rongshen, who has worked in a variety of logistics functions across SAIC and the joint venture.
Supply chain opportunities
In 2023, Volkswagen sales in Malaysia were just over 2,600 units, compared to around 2,000 units in 2022. Despite strong year-on-year growth, this level is down from previous highs of around 13,000 a decade ago, according to the Malaysian Automotive Association (MAA). But the OEM has shifted its line-up to be more upscale, now selling six models, including the Volkswagen Golf R, Golf GTI and variants of the Tiguan Allspace SUV and Arteon coupe. The Pekan plant currently assembles all these models as semi-knockdown (SKD) and complete-knockdown (CKD) kits.
This line-up could be set to expand, including the addition of new brands. According to an official statement from VW Group Malaysia, Lehmann will oversee expansion of new technologies, brands and markets, with the goal to “ensure Malaysia as a future-proof location for Asean regions”.
VW Group will be eyeing growth in Malaysia’s relatively large new vehicle market, where sales and production have surpassed pre-pandemic levels to reach around 700,000 passenger vehicles per year. According to the MAA, new passenger vehicle sales were up 12% in 2023 compared to 2022, at more than 719,000 units.
National brands Perodua and Proton together account for around two-thirds of the market and have gain market share in recent years compared to international brands. Japan’s Toyota, Honda and Mitsubishi are the largest non-national players in the market. With fuel costs kept very low in oil-rich Malaysia, the current share of EV sales in the country also remains very low.
However, as countries in the Asean region eliminate trade barriers, and Malaysia further seeks to expand its supply chain capabilities – including in electronics and semiconductors – carmakers such as the VW Group could seek to localise more manufacturing and supply chain operations in the country. Malaysia, along with other markets in Asean, could further serve as a buffer for global brands that continue to lose market share in China.
Malaysia’s proximity and economic ties to China also raise questions of how closely the country’s automotive supply chain will be to China. Already, China’s BYD and Great Wall have entered the domestic market, with more likely to follow.
VW Group’s Pekan plant, which opened in 2012, is located on Malaysia’s east coast, close to the Pahang River. It is located at the same location as DRB-Hicom’s joint venture plant with Mercedes-Benz. The Malaysian investment company has further partnerships with OEMs including Honda, Mitsubishi and Toyota, and owns 50.1% of Malaysia OEM Proton (with China’s Geely holding the remaining share).