UPDATE: As of December 8 Paul Sansom has stepped down from his role as managing director of Volkswagen Group Australia, read our update here.
On January 1 this year, Brit Paul Sansom took over the top job at Volkswagen Group Australia – leading not one, but four brands for the first time in his career.
But he didn’t start at the top – or even in the automotive sector, instead beginning his working life in banking.
“Life after college didn't start in automotive,” Sansom tells Wheels. “It was in banking, and from there I got co-opted into a project that led me into vehicle financing and so on. Around the turn of the century I was headhunted to go work at Jaguar, which I did for a couple of years, though it was not a great company back then.
“And then I started to convince everyone that I needed to move to automotive, which all my family and friends thought was a crazy idea – having had quite a responsible position in the bank that was all going quite well and was nice and safe.
"My father had worked all of his life in the bank as well, so they all thought I was nuts. And then, when it wasn't really working out at Jaguar, I thought I better find the employer of choice and I believe that was Volkswagen Group. I've been here ever since.”
I started to convince everyone that I needed to move to automotive, which all my family and friends thought was a crazy idea
After finding his place at the VW Group, Sansom rose through the ranks – starting out as director of customer service at Audi UK from 2009-2011 before becoming the premium brand’s UK sales director for two years after that.
Showing international leadership promise, Sansom was chosen to then take the helm of Audi South Africa as its Managing Director from 2014-2017 before taking on the top job at Audi Australia – where he spent five years until the end of 2021.
Until Sansom took over the role of Group MD, Volkswagen and Skoda had been separate from Audi in Australia, a unique setup not found in his home market in Britain where VW, Skoda, Seat, and Audi all operate from under one roof, overseen by Group management.
“[The divide of VW and Audi in Australia] was very unusual for me. I was much more familiar with our global business model, which we've got in the UK and we also had in South Africa where I was before that. We didn't have that here, so we’ve put that right now and we're much stronger together as an organisation.
“We’ve been busy in these first nine months dealing with the post merger, but I think it has obviously been compounded by all the new ways of working and the way that the world's sort of returning to work and to a hybrid model [after COVID-19]. We've got a new office here and new ways of working. So, yeah, it's been a lot to manage.
"We’ve come a long way when there's obviously still some huge headwinds out there in the supply chain that are affecting us probably more significantly than some other brands here in Australia. Despite that, we are selling pretty much everything we can lay our hands on, and our order banks are really strong across all of our brands – including Cupra now that's just started up.
“We've used that time to really sort of set the foundations for our business. There's a new vision and strategy for Volkswagen Group Australia now, we've really set ourselves on becoming the dominant force here as a European manufacturer and importantly we want to be the leader in electric vehicles as well.”
Sansom’s views on Australia’s lagging EV policies are well documented, having been outspoken on the subject for the last few years, but there’s always one issue that rears its ugly head whenever he does so – Dieselgate.
We want to be the leader in electric vehicles
“I don't mind being asked that question at all now,” Sansom admits to us. “I mean, there was a time if I'm really honest there where it was harder to answer as we were in the midst of it, no one enjoyed that period. But looking back now, there's no doubt that that's really shaped our global organisation’s strategic direction, in a way that no other has really followed yet – certainly of our scale, we are really leading the way.
“As Churchill said; ‘never waste a good crisis’ and, you know, the Volkswagen Group, is a good example of that, because we've taken that moment in our history, and recognised the actions of a few that had to be rectified by everyone that remains in the organisation.
“There's so few people that were responsible for it, you know, and there's 660,000 people who are now putting right those wrongs. And that's something that I'm really, you know, I'm really passionate about. So, when people ask me about that question, I can acknowledge that wasn't a great moment in our history, but it's certainly been the catalyst to really accelerate a transformation that was already starting to take place to be honest. And we want to echo that here in Australia.”
In a personal capacity too, Sansom has also been trying to do good for the community – taking part in a sleep out in a cardboard box for homeless charity Vinnies in Sydney in June.
“Recently I found myself explaining to my seven-year-old son why he’d seen some people sleeping on the streets,” he says. “He reflected on this and asked me to take him home so he could pick up his pocket money and give it to the particular person he had seen. Not satisfied, my son then went in to the nearest store and bought the gentleman a chocolate bar and gave it to him. It was a moving experience to not only witness my son’s kindness, but it made me stop and think more deeply about the homelessness issue.
“[The Sleep Out] was a pretty incredible experience actually. I try and use this platform that I’m privileged to occupy to try and do some good.
“By coincidence the email came in my inbox for Vinnies’ CEO Sleep Out just afterwards. I'd seen it the year before and thought I should get involved in that next year. And so the stars aligned and I did it and raised personally just over $8000 – but that was a drop in the ocean compared to the near $9 million that was made out the CEO Sleep Out this year, which was incredible.
“What really struck me about it was just the type of people that maybe I'd previously perceived as a homeless person. The vast majority are just people, like you and I, that have come on some really hard times. They might have had an injury at work that means they can't work anymore, they can't keep up their repayments and so on. And they've suddenly gone from a relatively safe environment into a downward spiral that was dramatic.
It's a very humbling experience. I'm glad I did it
“I slept out on the Harbour in Sydney and it was freezing cold, and it was wet. It was just awful and I was lucky enough to be able to drive my car home and have a hot shower and a cup of tea the next day. But you think about these guys that are out there on the streets every night and have to maybe get up and go to work or whatever they're doing the next day.
"It's a very humbling experience. I'm glad I did it. And I've been able to raise some awareness since about this issue in Australia – because it's a pretty bad one and getting worse unfortunately.
“There's definitely a lesson in that for my son, and I hope he'll grow up to remember that he's very fortunate.”