Much like running a major luxury brand in these unique and challenging times, Volvo Car Malaysia’s Managing Director, Charles Frump, says his introduction as an American, married to a Japanese native, working for a Swedish car company in Malaysia is “always a bit complicated”.
However, Charles assures The CEO Magazine that his entry into the automotive industry was far less complex. He completed a Master of Business Administration at University of California Los Angeles, where he studied international business with an emphasis on Japan. This course of study included a term spent in Japan as the only non-native student in his class.
On graduating, in 2000 he was recruited by Ford Motor Company Japan and later went on to hold several positions in the US in sales, marketing, customer service and all the areas outside of finance.
“Volvo has given me a lot of chances to move around the world, but to be in Malaysia is fun because it brings together a lot of the cultures that I very much love and am familiar with.”
In 2009 he joined Volvo as Director of Marketing in Japan. An opportunity in China as the Vice President of Marketing for the country followed, before he then moved to Volvo headquarters in Sweden to work as the Global Head of Marketing Communications.
“From there, I moved to India to be the Managing Director, which was the job I had always wanted,” he says. “And to be in such a fantastic dynamic, amazing place like India was great.”
Last year, Charles moved to his current role as Managing Director at Volvo Car Malaysia. “Volvo has given me a lot of chances to move around the world, but to be in Malaysia is fun because it brings together a lot of the cultures that I very much love and am familiar with,” he says.
Charles says that Volvo Car Malaysia’s journey through the COVID-19 crisis has proven less challenging than it could have been, as demand for Volvo products has always been high and, in fact, it has only increased during the pandemic. “With wealthy individuals unable to travel or dine at beautiful restaurants, they had money to spend, and cars have always been a popular way to do so,” he explains.
That said, the period was not without its challenges, with Charles citing team building amid lockdowns and social-distancing measures as a significant roadblock in building trust and relationships with his new team. However, with the worst effects of the pandemic hopefully behind us, he says he is no longer the work from home sceptic he once was.
“I think that the worry of many CEOs in the past has been that if they’re not there, in the office, watching their staff, then they won’t work. And I think that we’ve found that, while externally it seems less challenging, internally, it was somewhat the opposite.”
He hopes to incorporate the other lessons the pandemic has taught him – that conferencing calls and online chats are both capable tools for keeping people connected and that there are benefits to sitting comfortably at home, in a quiet place, donning jeans and a T-shirt and skipping the daily commute.
These days, he says he finds a hybrid schedule the most productive way to work, as it offers a balance between the benefits of working remotely and the incomparable collaborative and social opportunities face-to-face interactions provide. “What we’re testing right now is on Mondays and Tuesdays we all come into the office for collaboration days; Wednesdays and Thursdays are out-of-office and on Fridays it’s completely optional,” he says.
“The key to making these relationships work is investing the time and really listening and understanding each other.”
Charles says collaboration with key partners is a big focus for Volvo, who work hard to foster and maintain excellent relationships with its dealer body. Developed over a number of years, these relationships have a focus not only on helping dealers build profitable businesses, but to also make strategic decisions together. “The key to making these relationships work is investing the time and really listening and understanding each other,” he says.
“Once a month, I have a call with all our dealers to let them know what happened the previous month, what’s happening this month and what’s on the horizon. That’s on top of face-to-face meetings at least twice a year with all dealers, plus, of course, individual visits.”
Long-term strategic partnerships require dealers to invest in the best facilities in the industry, so that when customers walk into a showroom in Kuala Lumpur, they’ll experience that classic Scandinavian style and luxury that Volvo offers. This investment is something that is rewarded and fostered with exclusivity.
“We only have 11 dealer partners with 15 outlets, which ensures that our dealers are in large, profitable areas,” he says. “So when they’re profitable, they can invest in the best facilities, the best people to take care of our customers – so they’re more focused on that area and not as worried about internal competition among dealers.”
Looking to the future, Charles says Volvo Car Malaysia’s commercial plans unsurprisingly encompass the mega-trends of electrification of cars and online sales.
“Malaysia is a hugely growing market for us. We export cars from here to other APEC countries and specifically countries in South-East Asia, so that’s a new part of the business and is exciting for me,” he says.
Volvo recently signed a commitment in front of world leaders that by 2030, they will no longer be making cars with internal combustion engines, and will be a fully electric company. This has translated to ceasing development of internal combustion cars and focusing all their resources on electric cars.
“I think we are in a very good strategic position with this. I look at the government support that’s available and already committed through to 2025, and this allows me to make strategic product and manufacturing decisions about building these cars here,” he says.
“I’m also coming into the business at a time where there’s a lot of change in terms of how we sell our cars, and the kind of cars that we’re selling.”
Leveraging the master plan from Sweden for adaptation in Malaysia, Charles says one new electric car will be released every year until 2025. It’s a strategy that also has the backing of the Malaysian government.
“I’m also coming into the business at a time where there’s a lot of change in terms of how we sell our cars, and the kind of cars that we’re selling. Some customers want to walk into a dealership and buy cars, while others do not.
“I think we need to be flexible and meet the customer where they want to be met. Looking forward, it’s my role to balance all of these things.”