Natalie Robyn has been CEO of Volvo Cars in Switzerland since January 2017. Before that – and after a first step into Delphi for a project while in business school – she gained 15 years of experience in the automotive industry and has held various management positions at DaimlerChrysler and Nissan. She joined Volvo Cars in 2015 and managed several Volvo markets and importers in the EMEA region (Europe, Middle East and Africa) as Vice President International Markets and Importers. A dual US and Spanish citizen, Natalie speaks English, Spanish and French fluently and is a competent German-speaker. She holds a BA in International Business Strategy and Operations from Colgate University and an MBA from Thunderbird School of Global Management.
As we emerge from the acute phase of the COVID-19 crisis, our journey towards a new normal begins. EY asked various thought leaders and decision makers to take stock and share their insights into what’s next. Christine Schmid is the Head Strategy at financial services technology company additiv, which is helping wealth managers and credit providers to capitalize on the digital transformation. She talks about the changes she anticipates and expAs we emerge from the acute phase of the COVID-19 crisis, our journey towards a new normal begins. EY asked various thought leaders and decision makers to take stock and share their insights into what’s next. Natalie Robyn, CEO of Volvo Cars in Switzerland, reflects on the current new normal and discusses drivers of business transformation beyond the COVID-19 crisis.
You’ve been in the automotive industry for roughly 15 years. When and how did you enter this business?
Completely randomly, actually. I started my career in investment banking doing equity research for dot-com companies. I found equity research a bit boring – you’re far away from any operational activity. At business school, I started talking to DaimlerChrysler Financial Services, and they told me about an international development program. I joined and started on an exciting placement that took me to several countries with interlinked assignments between Stuttgart and Detroit.
You entered a fast-changing business. How would you summarize the automotive industry back then?
When I started, it was an industry undergoing a revolution – from being archaic and slow-moving to really trying to modernize. A lot of cutting-edge technology has developed in the last decade and as an industry, we weren’t at the forefront back then. Structures and setups were still old-fashioned, male-dominated, hierarchical. Making small changes was quite challenging, and this was probably the case throughout the industry.
How would you describe the new normal in your current business environment?
Over the past six months we’ve seen a pretty dramatic change globally. The new normal is really about flexibility and learnings. We’ve always been a changeable organization but now we’re being more flexible about how we adapt, how we work, how we move. The new normal is becoming even more digital than before and online platforms have grown in importance. So it’s about how we adjust to the reality of adapting to uncertainty – we don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow with regard to our social safety, our economic stability and our freedom of movement. That’s challenging. But I think here in Switzerland we’re in one of the best situations globally, we’ve been fortunate.
Just continue with the honest and open communication, keep up the flow.
You mentioned flexibility and learnings. What have been the biggest lessons learned for your company and for you personally?
We were very fortunate to be well prepared for a sudden remote working scenario. We’d just finalized our business continuity plan covering all the measures, laptops, equipment and other necessities for working from home around the time when the first news came out of China.
For me, one big lesson learned was how to address everyone in a crisis. I quickly realized that you just continue with the open and honest communication, keep up the flow. There’s no need to change messaging, just make open statements.
It’s also so important to have good connectivity. From a business perspective, we weren’t 100% ready on the retail side to have online solutions available and we’ve seen that this is something we need to accelerate.
Overall transformation starts with culture and human centricity. Put the humans at the center of everything you plan to do in the future. And don’t forget to have fun during the process. This is very important as we spend the most of our time at work.
In light of the increasing infection rates, it looks like the second wave is here. How did you cope with the lockdown and how are you preparing for this winter?
We have a lot of autonomy as a national sales company, that’s a very attractive part of Volvo and the trust culture is one of the reasons I joined and am so happy here. I’ve been given a lot of independence and conviction from the company headquarters and that was very helpful in the acute phase of the crisis. I could make decisions quickly together with my management team without unnecessary bureaucracy.
At the moment, we’re following all of the Federal Council’s guidelines but we’re also monitoring what might come next. In line with the new public health recommendations, we are essentially back to working from home. If we have to head in for a business essential activity we are divided into two groups that come into the office in alternating weeks to avoid superspreading. We also have temperature measurements in the office. People wear masks in all meetings and we have additional cleaning measures in place. We assess the situation almost daily and adjust as required.
With our retail partners, we already took measures during lockdown and we’re prepared to do that again if we have to. We’ve set up the right communication channels and are ready to act if the need arises. We will continue to try and support as best as possible.
Connectivity is key.
What were and still are the biggest potential threats you see?
If your customer can’t walk into one of your stores and purchase your products (when that is the only purchasing option), you have a fundamental issue. We had some but not all the online platforms needed to support our customers at the time lockdown came.
In terms of the future, we’re not really sure what’s going to happen. We were fortunate during lockdown in that we managed to get basic services – for vehicle repairs – up and running soon, and we opened some of our sales outlets after four or five weeks.
We started to see things picking up before the summer, people were feeling very positive. Then boom: everyone came back and here we are again. We’re not sure what’s going to happen around the holidays. Will there be free movement? Will stores be open? This has a major impact on consumer behavior and spending. We operate in a premium industry, and people are tending to wait before purchasing a vehicle, renewing a lease, getting that repair. There’s a lot of uncertainty, which in turn causes instability – that’s a major threat for us. We’re looking to identify solutions though
There’s a lot of uncertainty, which in turn causes instability – that’s a major threat for us.
Considering the current automotive market, what sets Volvo apart from the competition?
We’ve gone from being a small Scandinavian company to making people sit up and notice the big bold steps we’ve taken. Those steps are an important part of our culture. We consider our competitors to be the premium manufacturers, mainly based in Germany. One of the main differences is that we’re smaller. We’re also ahead of the curve with innovative technology like electrification. I think we benefit from our Scandinavian culture and style. Every important transformation starts with culture. Interaction with customers is also important. We want people to feel well, to feel they’re being taken care of in a very human and individual way. Safety is very much part of the Volvo main brand, and that becomes more and more important every day. Most vehicles are very safe, but Volvo has always had a different focus and view on safety. For example, we don’t patent safety technology.
Gender equality is only possible if everyone gets involved.
As the crisis accelerates business transformation, what else is driving change at Volvo?
In terms of other drivers, when I was in Sweden we were looking at how we could expand our corporate culture and values to other countries where we’re present, in other words, our subsidiaries. Paternity leave is one area where Sweden is leading and it represents what we as a company stand for: gender equality, flexibility, employee satisfaction. It’s so important to give parents the time to spend with their children. That’s why we introduced six months’ parental leave in May 2019. We’ve had a few fathers who’ve taken paternity leave here, and they’ve been able to do so in flexible ways. For us it’s been only positive. I hope more companies set it up, it’s crucial for gender equality. It’s only possible to progress if everyone gets involved.
About Volvo’s plans to be leading-edge in terms of sustainability: what are you planning in that field?
Sustainability and decarbonization in particular are part of the Swedish and Volvo culture and this is filtering down. There’s a huge push towards electrification. We’re also recycling and avoiding single-use plastic where we can, exploring battery recycling, solar energy, water refiltration. There are steps we can take along the entire supply chain to become more environmentally friendly. We have a plant in Sweden that’s carbon neutral with wind power and water recycling and we’re also looking at that here in Switzerland. We’re planning to move to a new location in a couple of years which will also be more environmentally friendly. It’s a mindset.
A final question on behalf of our readers – where should businesses focus their attention over the next six months?
I would say the three key things are flexibility, connectivity and last but not least safety first.