Volkswagen is changing chief executives in Chattanooga again, bringing in an exec from China who in coming months will oversee two vehicle launches and work on an $800 million expansion.
Tom du Plessis, who was director of production at multiple plants in China for the last five years, is taking over for Frank Fischer. Fischer was a former Chattanooga plant chief who returned on an indefinite basis when ex-CEO Antonio Pinto took a new post in May.
Fischer said he had always intended to stay in Chattanooga for a limited tour of duty as the company looked for a new permanent CEO.
"I didn't know how long I'd be here. I had no idea how long it would take to find a CEO," said Fischer, who returned to the top job in May amid a hard-fought union election.
New CEO du Plessis declined comment on the union vote, in which the United Auto Workers lost by a margin of 833 to 776. But he cited teamwork, mutual respect, continuous improvement and training as key to the plant's future success.
VW CHATTANOOGA CHANGES
› Tom du Plessis, new CEO
› Burkhard Ulrich, incoming senior vp of human resources for the factory
› Brent Hinson, senior vp of finance and IT
"In the next days and weeks, I'll spend time to really understand, also to listen," said du Plessis, who is a native of South Africa and started his VW career there at a plant 11 years ago.
He comes at an important time for the plant that employs about 3,800 people and currently produces the midsize Passat sedan and seven-seat Atlas SUV.
Before year's end, the factory will launch a five-seat SUV based on the Atlas, the Cross Sport, as well as the 2020 version of the Passat. Also, plans are to break ground on an $800 million electric vehicle facility with plans to produce a new SUV in 2022.
"It's an interesting time and also a positive time," said du Plessis.
The 58-year-old exec, who has also worked for Toyota, said he was involved in 43 new vehicle launches during his stint in China. He helped oversee nine car plants, two engine factories, a battery assembly facility and 24,000 employees, he said.
He again mentioned working as a team along with preparation, training and development for successful vehicle launches for VW in the China market, which is the largest in terms of sales for the world's biggest automaker.
The CEO, who studied engineering at the University of Pretoria, said the transition to his new role will have to be "seamless," noting this is his first time not just in Chattanooga but in the United States.
"I really look forward to becoming part of the community," said du Plessis, who is married and has two children.
Fischer said he will return to his former post overseeing VW's product lineup of mid- and full-size vehicles for the automaker's facilities, including Chattanooga.
"My history with Volkswagen Chattanooga goes back to day one," he recalled, citing groundbreaking of the $1 billion plant in 2008, constructing it during the Great Recession, the hiring of the first 2,000 employees, and the launch of the Passat.
Fischer left the CEO job the first time in 2014 but said he kept a close connection to the factory, returning a number of instances.
"It's like a second home for me," he said. "I care deeply about this plant and team here."
Ellen Collins, a laboratory analysis specialist for VW, cited the two upcoming vehicle launches.
"But we're going much further than that — we're electrified now," she said.
Plant employee Kirstin Nordlund, who is a customs specialist, said she's excited about Volkswagen's future in Chattanooga.
"I love coming to work," said Nordlund, who has been at the plant for about 18 months.
Contact Mike Pare at email@example.com or 423-757-6318. Follow him on Twitter @MikePareTFP.