Life's work Volkswagen: The tragedy of Ferdinand Piëch
Ferdinand Piëch's career is an unprecedented success story - characterized by self-discipline and harshness towards oneself and others. But exactly this relentlessness eventually led to his failure.
You can tell the story of Ferdinand Piëch from different angles.
There is, for example, the ingenious engineer who shaped automotive engineering with several pioneering developments.
Or the visionary manager , who knew how to shape a basically ungovernable corporate conglomerate into a powerful group that nobody in the industry can ignore.
However, Piëch can also be described as an outsider to whom the family had already intended the second violin at an early age. One who had to end his youth after poor school performance in a Swiss elite boarding school, which he later described as a "hardening school". And he already learned that the only person he can trust is himself. A few years later, his family also denied him promotion to Porsche - despite measurable successes. Because he did not belong to the branch of the name bearers.
From such a youth one either emerges as a broken person - or someone who makes tough decisions. Piëch was one of the latter category.
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An outsider remained the grandson of the beetle inventor Ferry Porsche for a lifetime. However, this role also freed him from being considerate when planning the next career move.
When Piëch left Porsche in 1972, he had already made a lasting impression on himself. The 917 he drew rearranged the world of racing car builders. Power without end - one whispered of nearly 1000 HP - paired with an extremely light chassis, resulted nearly 400 kilometers per hour. The hard-to-ride super sports car dominated various racing series - including the 24-hour race at Le Mans - for years.
Therefore, it was granted to Audi from 1973 - and owes him the five-cylinder engine, the lightweight fully galvanized safety body and the legendary Quattro drive, which made possible the rise of Audi in the exquisite triple club of German premium manufacturers. Nevertheless, he was only given the post at the top after he had blatantly threatened to leave.
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20 years later follows the call to the parent company to Wolfsburg (again against considerable resistance). Volkswagen had a heavy impact at the time, several thousand jobs were at stake. But Piëch did not dismiss, but rather forged an alliance with IG Metall. And he created the technical conditions so that the workers could build cars that were well received by the customers. He recognized the advantages of the platform strategy early, as well as the money-saving effect of largely identical components in several cars. His almost manic obsession for details caused stress for all involved - and for good cars.
Eternal fight against skeptics
But brilliance on the drawing board alone can not explain the success of Piëch. For in retrospect, it is also clear: the 917 initially met internally as decided resistance as the four-wheel drive and the five-cylinder. But Piëch prevailed - and if technical arguments were not enough, he resorted to other means: secrecy, secret collusion, intrigues.
In the struggle for the 917, the five-cylinder and the Quattro, the aspiring engineer trained his assertiveness. And refined his methods. Who followed him unconditionally, he granted his favor. Martin Winterkorn was for many years his most talented pupil, but also the then Audi CEO Rupert Stadler and development manager Ulrich Hackenberg belonged to the illustrious circle of those who contradiction was occasionally allowed.
But not infrequently the suspicion of disobedience sufficed to end careers. In no other group did managers lose their posts as quickly as Volkswagen did. In panel discussions Piëch only a few seconds break after a sentence and a stern look enough to shatter his opponent to the marrow, it is told.
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Authoritarian regime as a guarantor of success
For a long time the regime worked smoothly. Although Piëch also made mistakes - with the GM purchasing chief and "cost-killer" José Ignacio Lopez, for example, he got into the nineties, an industrial espionage scandal in the house. But the managers, at whatever level, continued to deliver. And they contributed their part to an unprecedented track record. The troubled carmaker with around 300,000 employees became a global corporation that gave and gives jobs to more than 600,000 people.
The fate of Bernd Pischetsrieder, which Piëch had chosen as his successor in 2001, proved just how extreme the power system was designed for an absolute style of leadership. The former BMW boss let the reins too loose and quickly lost the influence on the divergence Reich. Piëch pulled the brake - and installed his most loyal man: Martin Winterkorn.
With Piëch as head of the supervisory board and Winterkorn as executor, peace returned. At the same time, the structures solidified, criticizing was becoming increasingly dangerous. During this time, the decision was made to conquer the diesel engine in the USA. Some cornerstones were immovable: lots of space, leather seats and a low price. This put pressure on the engineers, who needed a higher budget for the diesel to meet the stringent emissions legislation. Finally, they came up with a solution that helped to avoid the conflict - and led to the existence-threatening exhaust gas scandal.
It is part of the tragedy of Ferdinand Piëch that the success of the Volkswagen Group without its absolute will to power would probably have been unthinkable - and ultimately failed because of the authoritarian structures that it created.
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