VW Partriarch Unhappy Birthday

Ferdinand Piëch is the man who led Volkswagen for decades, helping to turn it into the world's largest carmaker. This month, he marks his 80th birthday. Amid VW’s Dieselgate troubles and family infighting over the company’s future, few will celebrate.
Ferdinand Piëch is not in a party mood.

When Ferdinand Piëch celebrated his 70th birthday a decade ago, when he still was VW's non-executive chairman, it was a glittering affair attended by Germany’s political dignitaries and auto industry elites. Among the political notables at his table sat Gerhard Schröder, the former German Chancellor, and Sigmar Gabriel, who now serves as foreign minister. Naturally, Mr. Piëch’s prominent colleagues on the Volkswagen board were also in attendance, including Martin Winterkorn, group CEO, and Wendelin Wiedeking, head of Porsche. So that every guest would appreciate how much the birthday boy had done for the company, a film was shown: “Seven Decades of Piëch.”

This year, as Piëch marks his 80th birthday, those political and auto industry dignitaries have not found birthday invitations in their mailboxes. The celebratory mood has faded amid bitter feuding between members of the Piëch and Porsche families over the future of VW, and as the emissions cheating scandal known as Dieselgate continues to plague the company and undermine its performance.

Both the Piëch and Porsche families are descendants of Ferdinand Porsche, designer of the Volkswagen Beetle and founder of the Porsche sports car. The two families control 52 percent of Volkswagen Group through their holding of Porsche SE, but relations have not always been friendly. In 2009, for instance, Porsche SE's failed attempt to take over VW Group drove a wedge between the two families.

Mr. Piëch, long respected as a manager and engineer, broke with VW in April 2015, when he suddenly resigned as non-executive chairman. At the beginning of this week, the VW patriarch sold most of his stake in the family holding company. The move marked Mr. Piëch’s final break from the company he ruled for two decades as chief executive and non-executive chairman from 1993 to 2015. Mr. Piëch now lives secluded in his home in Salzburg, Austria, isolated from the company he once led and even from family members.

 

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Mr. Piëch angered his former colleagues and co-investors at VW in February by reportedly implicating members of the non-executive board, including a state premier, in the automaker’s diesel emissions scandal. The parties involved have all denied Mr. Piëch's allegations.

Despite the company’s recent troubles, which some critics blame on Mr. Piëch’s dogmatic management style, the fallen patriarch is widely seen as an auto industry genius and the architect of VW’s resurgence. VW is now Europe’s biggest carmaker, selling more cars than Toyota and GM. The Wolfsburg-based company was founded in 1937 during the Nazi era, the same year Mr. Piëch was born.

“During a span of many years, Professor Piëch unquestionably performed a great service to the company,” Lower Saxony’s State Premier, Stephan Weil, said shortly after the sale of Mr. Piëch’s stake was announced Monday.

Despite Mr. Piëch’s achievements, no one at VW’s headquarters in Wolfsburg will be publicly celebrating his birthday this year. That may have a lot to do with Mr. Piëch himself. According to company insiders, Mr. Piëch wants to forgo any kind of company birthday ceremony. Similar signals are coming out of Porsche SE’s headquarters in Stuttgart.

The Volkswagen Group, however, does not want the 80th birthday to pass without any recognition at all. According to people at the company, the management board may send Mr. Piëch a letter of thanks.

 

Stefan Menzel writes about the auto industry focusing on Volkswagen. To contact the author: [email protected]