News From Terre Haute, Indiana

December 19, 2010

Volkswagen COO can relate to ISU grads

Class of ’81 Sycamore saw similar economy when he graduated

Brian Boyce
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — The college graduates of 2010 matriculate into an economy similar to the one Mark Barnes saw in 1981.

Drinking coffee inside The Corner Grind on Saturday morning, the chief operating officer for Volkswagen of America Inc. said with the confidence of experience, “There are always opportunities for good, hardworking people. This is America.” The key is to remain true to oneself, he said, adding with a laugh, “I could start singing the national anthem right now.”

And if he couldn’t sing it, he could most certainly play it. Indiana State University’s winter term commencement speaker prefaced a career in the automotive industry with an undergraduate degree in music and marketing.

His father, James, served as chair of the ISU music department from 1964 to 1973, and led the Terre Haute Symphony from 1949 to 1970.

“I was a drummer,” he said proudly, recalling days spent at Terre Haute South Vigo High School in the marching and jazz bands.

But it was an entry-level spot in the Ford Motor Co. that took him west to Arizona in a year in which jobs were scarce. America’s economy throughout the latter 1970s had suffered record inflation, oil embargoes, subsequent fuel shortages, and ultimately high unemployment.

“No, it really wasn’t all that good,” he said, describing the early 1980s as less than bountiful.

“The automotive industry was really in a slump back then,” he said, adding layoffs and work force reductions were in full swing.

His first job, which he crossed the country to get, was as a parts analyst. “I answered the phone and listened to irate customers and irate dealers,” he chuckled with reflection. But it was a job with opportunity to service customers in Arizona and New Mexico, and Barnes said the most important thing was the opening. “All you really need is that first opportunity.”

Two years later he made a move to Nissan, again servicing parts dealers. But in 18 years with that company he rose through a number of positions including posts in regional marketing and dealer operations. That opportunity led to a spot as the vice president for national sales at Hyundai Motor America.

“I’ve always loved the car business,” he said, noting it’s shared good times with bad during the last 30 years.

Immediately prior to becoming COO of Volkswagen’s American division, Barnes did a 10-month stint at Chrysler. The year was 2007 and would mark the beginning of an economic recession, the impact of which lingers today. When he got a call from Volkswagen, he made the move.

“It’s been very difficult over the last two years with the economy,” he said.

The automotive industry should post about 11.5 million new sales globally this coming year, compared to 10.5 million in 2010. But the industry was moving 17 million vehicles a year during the middle 2000s.

Still, any increase is good news, he said.

“What you’re seeing is pent up demand,” he explained, noting people put off buying new vehicles but now have to make a move.

This year, Volkswagen will launch its first American manufacturing plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., expecting to hire up to 2,000 workers. More than 9,000 jobs will come by way of vendor support, he said. The German-based company currently operates plants in Europe and Mexico, but America is a key market and they’re excited about moving production here.

Currency exchanges make it favorable to produce in America these days, he noted, adding the big buyer is currently China.

“China is now the largest car market in the world,” he said, pegging that country’s 2010 purchase number at 1.5 million. The post-Communist era has produced a stronger consumer drive there, he said. Meanwhile the native Chinese auto makers aren’t as comparatively strong in terms of competition.

“We have to get one in Terre Haute,” he laughed when asked about dealership expansions. “That’s my new mission.”

In recent years, Volkswagen has led the way in terms of high fuel mileage, and Barnes bragged a little on the new Jetta, which retails at $15,995. “The dealers can’t keep them in stock,” he said of the new, clean diesel vehicles. “This Jetta’s beautiful too. Sometimes I look at it and wonder, ‘how did we do this?’”

Barnes said his parents are gone now. One sister lives in Mooresville while the other moved west to Washington state. He lives in Washington, D.C. His daughter is starting college at Clemson University, but his emotions are still strong with ISU and his hometown.

“I haven’t been down here in five years,” he said looking out the window of The Corner Grind at downtown Terre Haute. “It’s changed so much.”

An ISU education provides a good foundation, he said. The key is to stay true to your goals, regardless of the economic ups and downs.

Brian Boyce can be reached at 812-231-4253 or