The Resignation of VW’s Piëch
The Resignation of VW’s Piëch: What Happened Behind the Scenes
Just a few days ago, few expected Martin Winterkorn [above, far right] to remain the CEO of the Volkswagen Group for much longer. The 67-year-old had found himself in a precarious position after the all-powerful head of the supervisory board, 78-year-old Ferdinand Piëch [above, second from left and next to his wife Ursula], had told the German weekly magazine Der Spiegel: “I am at a distance to Winterkorn.”
The unexpected attack on Winterkorn sent the company into turmoil. Piëch and Winterkorn had been close associates for decades, and Winterkorn was widely expected to take over at the helm of the supervisory board in two years. Following Piëch’s remarks, the six-person executive committee of the Group’s supervisory board met twice. At the first meeting, in Salzburg on April 16, Piëch reportedly put forward his grave concerns about the future of the VW Group under Winterkorn: the VW brand’s low profit margins, its abysmal performance in the U.S. market, and the failure to come up with a strategy for low-cost vehicles. Moreover, he criticized what he saw as an overall lack of vision.
VW Group CEO Martin Winterkorn. He won’t be going anywhere.
But the five other members of the executive board—union reps Bernd Osterloh and Stephan Wolf, Social Democratic Party leader Stephan Weil, and Piëch’s estranged cousin Wolfgang Porsche [above, second from right]—had no interest in discussing his analysis. Instead, they pushed through a statement that called Winterkorn the “best possible CEO for VW” and announced an extension to his contract. Piëch’s insistence that his contract be extended as well was met with outrage.
Then, Winterkorn’s and Porsche’s troops began marshaling. “The old man must go,” a supervisory board member told the influential tabloid Bild am Sonntag the Sunday after the meeting. Further reports appeared, claiming that Piëch asked Porsche CEO Matthias Müller to prepare for the top job in Wolfsburg. True or not, Müller was treated frostily at the VW Group’s press conference at the Shanghai auto show—which Winterkorn decided to skip.
Ferdinand Piëch and his wife, Ursula, at the Volkswagen Annual Shareholders Meeting in 2014. Both resigned their positions with the company’s supervisory board on Saturday.
The second meeting of the supervisory board’s executive committee took place in Braunschweig on April 25. Everyone—well, almost everyone—hoped it would help to soothe the tension and pave the way for a smooth shareholders’ meeting in Hanover on May 5.
It didn’t happen. The union members of the committee, traditionally Piëch’s allies, instead stuck with Wolfgang Porsche in their uncompromising support for Winterkorn. As a result, their wish to replace Piëch as the head of the supervisory board was fulfilled prematurely. The automotive titan didn’t just step down as the head of the supervisory board, he left the board entirely—and took his wife Ursula with him. With her wide knowledge of automotive topics and deep insight into the business, she had been understood to be Piëch’s first choice as his successor, even though he has publicly denied it.
It is now up to 65-year-old former union boss Berthold Huber to fill Piëch’s shoes until a more able successor is found. Huber’s immediate reaction was described as “shocked” and “worried.”
Wolfgang Porsche and Porsche driver Mark Webber at the 2014 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Piëch’s retreat is a personal victory for Wolfgang Porsche, who has never forgotten the humiliation of Porsche’s botched takeover attempt of VW. It didn’t happen, and Porsche ended up under VW’s control. The result was a triumph for Piëch, who never held the Porsche branch of the family in much esteem. He once derisively described their favorite activities as “knitting, crochet, playing the flute.”
On April 25, Wolfgang Porsche released a statement in which he thanked Piëch for “decades of extraordinary and highly successful work for the Volkswagen Group.” And he announced that the holding would “remain loyal to the responsibility as a main shareholder to the VW Group and its 600,000 employees.” We doubt Piëch was impressed by this accolade.
Piëch is still sitting on a large chunk of Porsche SE, which owns 50.7 percent of the VW Group. Convinced that Volkswagen is on the wrong track, he could continue to exert his influence on various levels, or he could sell off his shares entirely. Many observers, however, believe that Piëch’s departure represents the discordant final note of a controversial but highly successful career. Piëch built the Audi brand into a luxury powerhouse, put Volkswagen on solid financial footing, built the VW Group with the acquisitions of Bentley and Lamborghini, and launched Bugatti. It is a career that has elevated this grandson of Ferdinand Porsche to a status within the industry commensurate to his grandfather, Eiji Toyoda, and Henry Ford.