Estimated reading time 16 minutes, 55 seconds.
Following Volocopter’s March 8 leadership change announcement, Dirk Hoke has now taken up the baton from Florian Reuter as CEO and managing director of the eVTOL company, as of Sept. 1. eVTOL.com took the opportunity to speak to Hoke on his first day at the Bruchsal-based company to understand his vision for Volocopter.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Alex Scerri: Thank you for taking the time to speak to us on what must be a busy day. Can you give us a brief background on your path to Volocopter?
Dirk Hoke: My work experience started with Renault Group in Paris as a research and development (R&D) engineer for process and software analysis in 1994. Life in Paris was good, so six months quickly became two years. Following three offers from Siemens AG, I decided to get into the railway part of the business. This is where I rapidly progressed my career up to become CEO, running Siemens’ China railway division as the company became the country’s largest foreign railway supplier. I followed that with a stint as Siemens’ CEO for all of Africa.
Returning to Europe in 2011 as CEO for the company’s industry solutions division, I built up the digital data-driven part of the business, which today is known as Siemens MindSphere. I completed my run at Siemens as CEO of the large drives division, where I was tasked with returning the division to profitability.
This is when Airbus’ Thomas Enders asked to me help with Airbus’ digital transformation, starting in 2016. It was a revolution of sorts to bring someone external to the company into that position and also a bit of a culture shock. One example I remember clearly is when I was talking about platforms, by which I meant software. Up until that time, “platform” in Airbus language referred to the aircraft, so there was the worry that I wanted to divert investment from hardware — as in aircraft — to software. When they realized this was not my aim, it eventually turned to be a fantastic experience where I gave a lot but also learned a lot. I left my position as CEO of Airbus Defense and Space a year ago, and now, I’m ready to start this new challenge.
Alex Scerri: You believe in “values-based leadership.” How did you put this into practice?
Dirk Hoke: This is something I established at Airbus because, in addition to the digital transformation, I also undertook a cultural transformation where I introduced this concept. This was based on what we successfully achieved at the Defense and Space division. We placed a lot of focus on values, culture and purpose, and strove to assimilate this into Airbus’ DNA.
Alex Scerri: As you come from an aerospace and industrial giant, Airbus Defense and Space, how will that experience translate into leading a smaller but agile organization, such as Volocopter?
Dirk Hoke: I think the agile approach is closer to my style. Some frustrating moments when working for large organizations come from the slow speed of going from idea to implementation and execution. This is something that will be different at Volocopter. In fact, this is something that energizes me and I’m really looking forward to it.
What I will bring to the table is the experience in how to scale ideas to revenue and growth. This is important when thinking of a future IPO [initial public offering] where you need a solid and stable structure, not only on the hardware side but also for the financial side, internal controls, and regulation. I was responsible for in-house startups at Siemens and Airbus, which gives me the experience to motivate the Volocopter team in this transformation.
Alex Scerri: Your position with Volocopter was announced in March. How did you spend this transition period until officially entering your role?
Dirk Hoke: In a way, it was a little challenging because I would rather get to work straight away than stand observing by the side. However, it gave me the opportunity to spend time with my family, travel, and dive into startups where I took on advisory and board positions.
Going into this new position, I started collaborating with my leadership team by organizing a workshop to exchange and manage expectations from all sides on how we will collaborate, and most importantly, communicate to the team in the future.
I strive to establish clear communication rules within the leadership, so all teams get clear guidance from us. We are trying to do the impossible in the next two, three, and four years, and in order to do so, you need to have clear guidance for the team.
Alex Scerri: Volocopter appears to have a good head start, at least with the VoloCity, combined with a rapidly maturing regulatory environment in Europe. How much value do you ascribe to being first to market and will you drive toward this?
Dirk Hoke: Of course, it is my goal. It was a tough decision going from leading 40,000 people in an established business, to this new challenge at Volocopter. However, I did my due diligence. I already had some visibility in the urban air mobility (UAM) market from my time at Airbus, and was also involved in the World Economic Forum and in various working groups looking at certification processes.
As you pointed out, certifiability is key. Without this, you cannot get very far. I think Volocopter’s roadmap from day one is what distinguishes it from the competition. The focus on certification from the inception of the project and the early interaction with the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) is unique in the market.
The simpler design also comes into play when you consider the production cost at scale to a level where it becomes a mass-produced vehicle, available to the wider public. Volocopter ticked all the boxes.
Alex Scerri: Some stakeholders in the eVTOL ecosystem predict a rapid penetration of these aircraft with thousands of aircraft crisscrossing cities around the world, while others see a more organic growth, initially as a replacement mainstream rotorcraft. What are your thoughts?
Dirk Hoke: I don’t think UAM will be replacing something that already exists. It will be a totally new transport modality, complementary to existing services. I think the vision that there will be a sudden ramp up of UAM is simply not realistic. We go back to certification and the other crucial ingredient — public acceptance — to run a viable commercial business. This is possibly more intricate than the technical challenges.
Our vision is to create a complete ecosystem and the best end-to-end mobility experience. Naturally, this will have to happen in measured, prudent steps. Any mishap will affect the whole industry, so we must not forget the lessons learned in more than a century of aviation.
Alex Scerri: Earlier, you mentioned the IPO. Last year, Volocopter took a step back from a merger with a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC). Do you have any expectation of when the company will go public?
Dirk Hoke: It depends on the two fundamental targets — achieving the type certificate and a successful public demonstration in Paris in 2024. Once we hit these two milestones, there will be a very reasonable time horizon toward the IPO. This will be contingent on us completing the background work I mentioned earlier. In fact, I think it was the right path for Volocopter to stay private, as we will be in a strong position once all the associated internal processes are in place.
Alex Scerri: Besides the passenger aircraft, Volocopter is also developing VoloDrone. Which one has the greatest potential to be the first to bring in revenues?
Dirk Hoke: For sure the certification process for cargo is less complex than for passenger aircraft. We will hopefully start seeing VoloDrone generating revenue before we start commercialization of passenger transport. It is important to capitalize on the synergies between the various products, which I also think has been very well done.
The strategy to bring in VoloConnect later after VoloCity also makes a lot of sense. We must be diligent in how we spend future shareholders’ money, so we need to demonstrate proof-of-concept in steps. I was positively impressed by the burn rate at Volocopter in the past years, which has been very reasonable given what has been achieved.
Dirk Hoke: We need a complete ecosystem to provide the seamless end-to-end service. It doesn’t mean you have to do everything yourself. Thinking in an ecosystem means that you have to improve the overall customer experience. In order to do so, some of the aspects you must control yourself. It would not make sense to book a VoloCity flight and then wait a half hour for the ground transportation segment before or after the flight. The benefits of using a fast, comfortable flight would be negated by any snag in the other elements or in the interface between the transport modalities.
Alex Scerri: Most of Volocopter’s future business seems to be targeting Europe and Asia. Do you think it will be possible to penetrate the North American market and do you expect any barriers?
Dirk Hoke: We have a team building the foundations needed to explore the North American market because one thing that’s clear is you cannot scale without this market. It is a very particular task because you must really understand how this market works and have a strong local base. We will share more details in the future. From the certification aspect, we are already working on concurrent validation with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and are also liaising with EASA in regular meetings.
Alex Scerri: Where do you see Volocopter in five or 10 years?
Dirk Hoke: Five years from now, we will have a type certificate and successfully start ramping up in cities like Paris, Rome and Singapore. We will convince the public that it is safe to fly with us and that it is a pleasant and comfortable experience. Seeing VoloCity aircraft flying overhead will be a normal sight in a city.
Besides being the pioneers, in five to 10 years, we’re looking to be the market leader. VoloConnect will also start coming online, offering regional commuter flights to bring people into the city and then connect to their destination with the VoloCity. I believe we will establish our three offerings (cargo, urban and regional connectivity) and complete a successful IPO.
Alex Scerri: Is there anything else that you would like to share with the general eVTOL community?
Dirk Hoke: As an industry, we are trying to make the impossible possible. We have come very far already, and we will only succeed if we focus on public acceptance. We are a highly regulated industry, so it’s no question that our aircraft will be safe, but statistical safety and perceived safety are entirely different topics. We must prove to the public that air taxis are safe and make lives better. UAM has the potential to become an integral part in creating one of the most efficient forms of end-to-end mobility. The earlier we start convincing the public of this, the better it is for Volocopter and the industry as a whole.