Ferdinand Piëch, Domineering Volkswagen Chief, Dies at 82

Ferdinand Piëch, Domineering Volkswagen Chief, Dies at 82

Ferdinand Piëch, a scion of the Porsche carmaking family who led Volkswagen for two decades marked by rapid international expansion but also by scandal, died on Sunday in Rosenheim, a city in Bavaria. He was 82.

Mr. Piëch’s wife, Ursula Piëch, said in a statement that he died “suddenly and unexpectedly” but did not give a cause. German news media reported that Mr. Piëch collapsed in a restaurant.

Along with his grandfather, Ferdinand Porsche, the designer of the Volkswagen Beetle, Mr. Piëch ranked among the most influential car executives of the last century. Under his leadership Volkswagen became the largest car company in Europe by a wide margin and rivaled Toyota for the title of largest automaker in the world.

Mr. Piëch was also a notoriously demanding boss who ran Volkswagen like a personal fief. His record of firing or demoting executives who failed to meet his goals, and his apparent tolerance for questionable behavior, led to criticism that he created the authoritarian company culture that bred a costly emissions cheating scandal.

Mr. Piëch was born in Vienna on April 17, 1937. Both his parents were Nazis. His father, Anton, was a lawyer; his mother, Louise, was the daughter of Ferdinand Porsche, the self-taught engineer whom Adolf Hitler had hired to design a “people’s car.” It was the same vehicle that, after World War II, became known as the Beetle.

During World War II, Anton Piëch managed the vast Volkswagen factory in the newly built city now known as Wolfsburg. Ferdinand later recalled that one of his earliest memories was of riding a train that delivered fuel and raw materials to the production lines at the factory, which during the war was used to repair bombers and to make anti-tank weapons, mines and other munitions.

Fascinated, young Ferdinand told his parents that he wanted to work at the factory someday. Not in an office like his father, he wrote in his autobiography, “but for real, down there, where the workers repaired the airplanes and rode the trains, for real, with my hands.”

Still not old enough to go to school, Ferdinand was apparently oblivious to the slave laborers, including inmates from Auschwitz, who made up most of Volkswagen’s wartime work force.

After the war Mr. Piëch (pronounced pyecch) earned an engineering degree at the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule, a famed technology university in Zurich. He went to work at the fledgling sports car company that his uncle, Ferdinand Porsche, known as Ferry, had created after the war.

At Porsche, Mr. Piëch oversaw the racing program. He earned a reputation for pushing technical boundaries, sometimes with fatal consequences for drivers.

Mr. Piëch left Porsche after he and other family members quarreled so intensely that Ferry Porsche banned them from the company. In 1972 he got a job at Audi, a Volkswagen subsidiary then known for stodgy middle-class sedans. It was the first time anyone from the Porsche and Piëch clan had played an official role in Volkswagen management since the end of World War II.

Within three years Mr. Piëch rose to a position on Audi’s management board, where he received much of the credit for transforming the division into a luxury brand able to compete with BMW and Mercedes-Benz.

Mr. Piëch used technical innovations to set Audi apart from the competition, a trademark of his career. For example, he equipped passenger sedans with four-wheel drive, then a novelty. Audi still uses the Quattro brand created by Mr. Piëch and his engineers.

While at Audi, Mr. Piëch also acquired a reputation as a ruthless corporate infighter and dictatorial manager with no patience for underlings he regarded as incompetent. But his success there outweighed any reservations that Volkswagen’s supervisory board might have had when, in 1992, they named him to lead the parent company out of an existential crisis.

“Only when a company is in severe difficulty does it let in someone like me,” Mr. Piëch wrote in his autobiography, with startling frankness. “In normal, calm times, I never would have gotten a chance.”

When Mr. Piëch took over Volkswagen, the heyday of the Beetle was long over and the company struggled to develop new products with as much appeal. Parking lots around the factory overflowed with unsold vehicles. In America, where Volkswagen had once been the best-selling import, the company was reduced to a niche brand. There was talk of bankruptcy.

Within months Mr. Piëch replaced almost the entire Volkswagen management board, cut costs by persuading labor leaders to accept a shortened workweek, and set about renewing the product lineup.

He was obsessive about quality, insisting that his engineers narrow the so-called body gaps, the spaces between the car doors and car bodies. He once boasted that he fired any assembly-line managers whose body gaps were too wide.

One of Mr. Piëch’s most significant innovations, which would later have fateful consequences, was to combine engine computers and fuel injection to make diesel technology practical for passenger cars. Volkswagen diesels offered superior fuel efficiency but were quieter than other diesels of the period. They also did not smell as bad.

But Mr. Piëch’s commercial success was shadowed by scandal.

During his tenure, Volkswagen was accused of stealing corporate information from General Motors and of supplying prostitutes to Volkswagen labor representatives to secure their cooperation. Mr. Piëch was never charged with a crime, though people who reported to him were.

Mr. Piëch retired as chief executive in 2002, but retained substantial influence as chairman of the supervisory board, including the power to hire and fire top managers. In 2007 he named Martin Winterkorn, a longtime protégé with an equally demanding and authoritarian management style, chief executive.

With Mr. Piëch’s encouragement, Mr. Winterkorn announced that Volkswagen would aim to surpass Toyota as the largest carmaker in the world. As part of that ambitious plan, Volkswagen would try to restore past glory in the United States by selling Americans on the supposed virtues of “clean diesel.” The stage was set for the scandal that would later cost Volkswagen tens of billions of dollars.

Beginning in 2008, the Porsche and Piëch families also reasserted their control over Volkswagen for the first time since the end of World War II. They used sports car profits to acquire a majority of Volkswagen’s voting shares, which were cheap in part because of Mr. Piëch’s indifference to the stock price and refusal to kowtow to investors.

Eventually Porsche and Volkswagen merged, on terms that other shareholders complained were skewed in favor of the Porsche and Piëch families. But there was little the other shareholders could do about it.

Mr. Piëch’s domination of Volkswagen was so complete that he was able to install his second wife, Ursula, better known as Uschi, on the supervisory board. A former governess who had cared for the Piëch children, she had never worked in the auto industry.

But Mr. Piech’s sway over Volkswagen came to an end in April 2015 after he became disenchanted with Mr. Winterkorn’s performance and criticized him in public, igniting a power struggle. Other members of the Porsche family, with whom Mr. Piëch had long bickered, backed Mr. Winterkorn. Mr. Piëch resigned as supervisory board chairman. Ursula Piëch resigned her seat on the board.

Mr. Piëch’s departure may have been, for him, a blessing in disguise. He was no longer in the line of fire in September 2015, when Volkswagen admitted that its so-called clean diesels were fitted with illegal software that hid impermissibly high emissions from regulators. By 2019 the scandal had cost Volkswagen more than $30 billion in fines and civil settlements, and largely killed sales of diesel passenger cars in Europe.

There has never been any evidence that Mr. Piëch was aware of the illegal software. But he is often blamed for creating the company culture that drove employees to cheat rather than risk their jobs by admitting they could not achieve a technological target.

Little was heard publicly from Mr. Piëch after his departure. He sold his shares in the family holding company, which were valued at more than $1 billion, in 2017.

In her statement on Monday, Mr. Piëch’s wife said that in addition to her, he is survived by 13 children and more than twice that many grandchildren. In his autobiography, Mr. Piëch wrote that the mothers of the children included his first wife, Corina; Marlene Porsche, with whom he had a relationship while she was still married to a cousin of his; a woman he declined to identify; and Ursula.

“The life of Ferdinand Piëch was characterized by his passion for the automobile and for the workers that made them,” Ursula Piëch said. “To the last he was an enthusiastic engineer and car lover.”

Mr. Piëch’s name lives on in the auto industry. At the Geneva Motor Show in 2019 a son, Anton Piëch, displayed a prototype of a high-performance electric car. It’s name: the Piëch.

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