Ferdinand Piëch: Engineer of Power
He was a brilliant technician and mastered the art of Machiavelli: Ferdinand Piëch was regarded as a failure in his childhood - but he fought his way up and created a global auto empire. Until he disempowered himself.
The "Burli" has shown it all in the time-honored family Porsche-Piëch. "Burli", they once called the little Ferdinand in the clan: the dyslexic his teacher considered "too stupid" to study. The boy who got stuck with the bumper at the garage door during his first test drive. Nobody could imagine back then that this very Ferdinand Piëch would forge a global auto-empire like Germany has never seen before.
By itself, Ferdinand Karl Piëch has dominated Volkswagen for more than two decades. And transformed the ailing Wolfsburg car manufacturer into a global corporation. For his followers, he was a brilliant technician and visionary strategist, an intriguing autocrat for his opponents. In the end, the Patriarch disempowered himself - before his life's work VW slipped into the biggest scandal in the history of the company.
This Sunday, less than two years after his retirement, Piëch died in a hospital in Rosenheim. He was 82 years old and leaves behind 13 children from different relationships.
His last short interview is again typical Piëch. In the spring of 2019, his son Anton proudly presented his first self-designed vehicle at the Geneva Motor Show. It's a 612 hp electric-powered sports car called Piëch Mark Zero. And what does the father say when the "Bild am Sonntag" calls? "I was never there, I'm not in it and I will not be involved in the project."
A hard time at boarding school characterizes the young Ferdinand
He has experienced more than enough severity and severity even in his childhood. His mother Luise, daughter of the VW Beetle constructor Ferdinand Porsche, leaves on her right only that of her four children, which has rendered extraordinary services. There is hardly any room for "Burli", the third-born. After the death of her father and an "Insufficient" in English Luise Piëch sends the problem child to a boarding school in the Engadin. A "dark time of education" he had experienced in this "hardening boarding school", Piëch will write later in his book "Auto.Biographie". He realized that many things "are only possible on their own, because they can not rely on each other."
Porsche, Historical Archive
Ferdinand Porsche with his grandchildren Ferdinand Piech (r.) And Ferdinand Alexander Porsche
From now on, Piëch relies solely on himself. He discovers his great passion: technology. Decides to study mechanical engineering. Paukt and tüftelt, graduated in 1962 with a thesis on Formula 1 engines graduated engineer. Then the gaunt man gets in at Porsche, works his way up quickly - and designs the Porsche 917. In 1970, this race car wins the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The sales figures of the Stuttgart fast. And Piëch hopes to be named Porsche boss.
Announcement to the Porsches: "I am a wild boar, you are the domestic pigs"
But his relatives destroy his dream. The family branch of the Porsches does not want to see a "non-name bearer", as they call contemptible Piëch, at the head of their company. Piëch gets dumped. But he does not want to be small. "I am a wild boar, you are the domestic pigs!", He calls once in the dispute with the Porsches. What I mean is: I take care of myself, you take care of yourself.
In 1972, in his mid-thirties, he starts again: at the VW subsidiary Audi, in technical development. Two decades later, he disembarks at Audi, as CEO. Piëch has converted the dusty brand for wobbly lover lovers into a premium manufacturer. Audi is admired and envied for innovations in series production such as the permanent four-wheel drive, the five-cylinder engine, the turbo diesel TDI or the fully galvanized body.
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At that time, the parent company VW wrote billions in losses. Piëch convinces the most powerful men on the supervisory board, Lower Saxony's prime minister Gerhard Schröder and IG Metall boss Klaus Zwickel to entrust him with the group. He starts in early 1993. It is said that he confided to his wife Ursula that he did not know whether the company would be able to pay the workers in two months.
Few words of criticism are enough - and this view
The new boss rigs VW rigorously. In a row, he fires top managers. With his HR Director Peter Hartz, introduces the four-day week without pay compensation and more flexible working hours. Develop the Platform Strategy: Many different models share a technical base to push down costs. And because the control freak personally checks every model down to the smallest detail, especially the gap dimensions, they call it the VW Fugen Ferdl. Behind closed doors, of course.
Nobody dares to criticize the patriarch publicly. He already manages people like that. Often with a few piercing words, interrupted by excruciatingly long pauses between the sentences and a penetrating look of his steel-blue eyes.
"Anyone who does not spurt or interfere with my circles has lost it," Piëch wrote in his autobiography. The "maximum" is only achievable if you also go to the limit of what can be reached. "And harmony is not always at home on this frontier."
But the numbers are correct. When Piëch moves to the top of the Supervisory Board in 2002, VW makes twice as high a turnover as in 1993 - with record profits.
He was a quality freak - and an extreme power man
"The old man", as they call him now, is far from finished. Under his aegis, the group grows from four to 13 brands. The model range extends from the three-liter car to the 1001-hp Bugatti Veyron; from the Lupo to the Lamborghini. Again and again Piëch pushes the construction of luxury models - even if some of them, despite their undoubted qualities to the store keeper, especially the Phaeton. He's just a car driver. With Piëch an era has come to an end, says his biographer Wolfgang Fürweger. "He was the last car manager who helped build the vehicles themselves."
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And an engineer of power: Neither the industrial espionage scandal over the General Motors fetched Purchasing Director José Ignacio Lopez nor the so-called red-light affair brothel visits and sex parties at company costs can harm him. Only the managers around him have to go. When the 2008 world financial crisis breaks out, he persuades Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) to scrapping.
The takeover battle between Porsche and VW becomes a triumph for Piëch. It looks at first as if the sports car manufacturer swallowed the global corporation, it comes in the end vice versa - because Piëch pulls the right strings, the smartest intrigue is crazy. Whether everything is right there, is still controversial. But the result is clear. The Porsches are beaten, their proud house becomes a mere brand in the VW Group. And there is only one over it: the old Piëch. The winner in the battle of the dynasties.
First the big plans - then the big bang
In 2014, the Group sells more than ten million vehicles per year, generates more than € 200 billion in revenue and more than € 12 billion in profits. Piëch is still not enough. He wants to be the very first. The "Group Strategy 2018" he supports plans for Volkswagen to become the "economically and ecologically leading global automotive company" by 2018.
But then suddenly everything goes wrong. The power man Piëch instigates a power struggle with VW boss Martin Winterkorn, his former pupil. He explains in SPIEGEL that he is "at a distance from Winterkorn", and calls for his replacement. But unexpectedly, the representatives of the works council and the state of Lower Saxony face him in the supervisory board. Piëch has gambled. He throws down.
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A few months later, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announces that VW has used an illegal defeat device in the engine control of its diesel vehicles to circumvent emissions standards. It is the beginning of the diesel scandal: Winterkorn and a number of other top managers have to go to pay VW fines worth billions. To date, the case deals with the courts. Ferdinand Piëch's implications are not finally resolved.
A striking last sentence: "I ask for good slander"
In 2017, the Patriarch separates most of his shares in the VW parent company Porsche SE, most of his shares are taken over by his brother Hans Michel. He then relinquishes his seat on the Porsche Supervisory Board. After more than half a century in the group, he is now out. And idleness has never been his thing.
"I personally think that Mr. Ferdinand Piëch has set unforgettable milestones in the automotive industry and that he has a significant share in the existence of the Volkswagen Group, as he presents himself today," the current VW Supervisory Board Chairman Hans Christian Pötsch to his departure said. Piëch's achievements would be "unforgotten" regardless of other topics.
He would have liked to hear it. As relentless as he has often acted as a group leader, no matter the man Ferdinand Piëch was not his legacy. Of interlocutors, he has often said goodbye with the sentence: "I ask for good slander."
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