Ferdinand Piëch, domineering leader of Volkswagen, dies at age 82


Ferdinand Piëch, a descendant of the Porsche carmaker family who led Volkswagen for two decades, marked by a rapid international expansion but also by a scandal, died Sunday in Rosenheim, a town in Bavaria. He was 82 years old.

Mr Piëch's wife, Ursula Piëch, said in a statement that he had died "suddenly and unexpectedly" but had not given a case. German media reported that Mr Piëch had collapsed in a restaurant.

With his grandfather, the designer of the Volkswagen Beetle, Ferdinand Porsche, Mr. Piëch is among the most influential leaders of the automotive sector of the last century. Under his leadership, Volkswagen became by far the largest car manufacturer in Europe and rivaled Toyota for the title of the world's largest automaker.

Mr Piëch was also a notoriously demanding boss who ran Volkswagen as a personal fiefdom. His history of firing or demotion of executives who did not achieve his goals, as well as his apparent tolerance for questionable behavior, earned him criticism for creating an authoritarian corporate culture that spawned an expensive scandal. emission fraud.

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 hired by Adolf Hitler to design a "popular car". This is the same vehicle that, after the Second World War, became the Ladybug.

During the Second World War, Anton Piëch ran the vast Volkswagen factory in the newly built city, now known as Wolfsburg. Ferdinand later recalled that one of his first memories was to get on a train that delivered fuel and raw materials to the factory production lines, which served during the war to repair the bombers and to manufacture anti-tank weapons, mines and other ammunition.

Fascinated, the young Ferdinand told his parents that he wanted to one day work at the factory. Not in an office like his father, he wrote in his autobiography, "but for real, there, where the workers repaired the planes and got on the trains, really, with my hands".

Still not old enough to go to school, Ferdinand was apparently oblivious to slavery workers, including Auschwitz detainees, who made up the bulk of Volkswagen's wartime workforce.

After the war, Mr. Piëch (pronounced pyecch) earned an engineering degree from the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule, a renowned technology university in Zurich. He went to work at the young sports car maker that his uncle, Ferdinand Porsche, said Ferry, had created after the war.

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

Mr Piëch left Porsche after arguing with so many other members of his family that Porsche Ferry banned them from the company. In 1972, he found a job at Audi, a subsidiary of Volkswagen then known for its heavy sedans of the middle class. It was the first time that members of the Porsche and Piech clans played an official role in the management of Volkswagen since the end of World War II.

Three years later, Piëch held a senior position on Audi's board of directors, where he received much of the credit for turning the division into a luxury brand that could rival BMW and Mercedes-Benz. Benz.

Mr. Piëch took advantage of technical innovations to differentiate Audi from the competition, a hallmark of his career. For example, he equipped sedans with four-wheel drive, then a novelty. Audi still uses the Quattro brand created by Piëch and his engineers.

While at Audi, Mr. Piëch also earned the reputation of being a ruthless business fighter and a dictatorial manager, with no patience for subordinates he considered incompetent. But his success in this country outweighed the reluctance that Volkswagen's supervisory board might have had when, in 1992, they had appointed him to run the parent company out of an existential crisis.

"It's only when a company is in serious trouble that it lets in somebody like me," wrote Piëch in his autobiography, with surprising openness. "Normally and calmly, I would never have had a chance."

When Mr Piëch took control of Volkswagen, the beetle's climax was over and the company was struggling to develop such attractive new products. The car parks around the factory were full of unsold vehicles. In America, where Volkswagen was the best-selling import, the company was reduced to a niche brand. We talked about bankruptcy.

In just a few months, Piëch replaced almost the entire Volkswagen executive committee, reduced costs by persuading union leaders to accept a shorter workweek and began renewing the product line.

He was obsessed with quality, insisting that his engineers reduce the so-called empty spaces, the spaces between the doors and the bodies. Once, he boasted that he had fired assembly line managers whose empty spaces were too wide.

One of Piëch's most important innovations, which would later have fatal consequences, was to combine engine calculators and fuel injection to make diesel technology practical for passenger cars. Volkswagen diesel engines offer superior fuel efficiency, but are quieter than other diesel engines of this period. They did not smell so bad.

But the commercial success of Mr. Piëch was overshadowed by the scandal.

During his tenure, Volkswagen was accused of stealing company information from General Motors and to have provide prostitutes to Volkswagen union representatives to ensure their cooperation. Mr. Piëch has never been charged with a crime, unlike the people who have denounced him.

Mr. Piëch retired as Chief Executive Officer in 2002, but retained significant influence as Chairman of the Supervisory Board, including the power to recruit and dismiss senior executives. In 2007, he named Martin Winterkorn, a long-time protégé of the equally demanding and authoritarian leadership style, at the helm of management.

With the encouragement of Mr. Piëch, Mr. Winterkorn announced that Volkswagen would aim to surpass Toyota as the largest car manufacturer in the world. As part of this ambitious plan, Volkswagen would try to restore the glory of the past in the United States by selling to Americans the supposed virtues of "clean diesel". The table was prepared for the scandal that would then cost Volkswagen tens of billions of dollars.

Starting in 2008, the Porsche and Piëch families also reaffirmed their control over Volkswagen for the first time since the end of the Second World War. They used the profits of sports cars to acquire the majority of Volkswagen's voting shares, which were inexpensive in part because of Mr Piëch's indifference to the share price and the refusal to yield to investors.

In the end, Porsche and Volkswagen merged, unlike other shareholders who had complained about the Porsche and Piëch families. But there was little that 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. Former housekeeper who had taken care of the children of Piëch, she had never worked in the car industry.

But Piech's influence on Volkswagen came to an end in April 2015 after being disenchanted with Winterkorn's work and criticizing him in public, triggering a power struggle. Other members of the Porsche family, with whom Mr Piëch had long been bickered, supported Mr Winterkorn. Mr Piëch resigned as Chairman of the Supervisory Board. Ursula Piëch resigned from her post on the board of directors.

The departure of M. Piech may have been a blessing in disguise. It was no longer in the line of fire in September 2015, when Volkswagen admitted that its so-called clean diesels were equipped with illegal software that concealed excessively high emissions from the regulators. By 2019, the scandal had cost Volkswagen more than $ 30 billion in civil fines and settlements, and had largely destroyed sales of diesel passenger cars in Europe.

It has never been proven that Mr Piëch was aware of the illegal software. But he is often criticized for having created the corporate culture that drove employees to cheat rather than risking their jobs by admitting that they could not achieve a technological goal.

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