Former Volkswagen boss Ferdinand Piëch dies at 82

Gifted but ruthless engineer built German car maker into a 12-brand empire

Ferdinand Piëch died on Sunday  at the age of 82. Photograph: Julian Stratenschulte/EPA

Ferdinand Piëch died on Sunday at the age of 82. Photograph: Julian Stratenschulte/EPA

 

Germany – and Austria – are in shock over the sudden death at 82 of Ferdinand Piëch, the autocratic Porsche heir who rescued Volkswagen and – with exacting standards, engineering prowess and an instinct for intrigue – transformed it into a global automotive giant.

Inscrutable to the end, the 82-year-old collapsed shortly after 7pm on Sunday, after arriving at a Bavarian gourmet restaurant. Attempts to resuscitate him at the restaurant, and in a hospital in Rosenheim, failed.

The billionaire leaves behind his second wife, Ursula, 13 children from four relationships, and a fortune estimated at €1.1 billion earned in a career filled with more triumph and treachery than many Shakespeare plays.

Ursula paid tribute in a statement to his life’s “passion for cars and the employees who build them”.

Piëch was born in 1937 in Vienna into the Porsche family, grandson of company founder Ferdinand, the brains behind the Nazi-era Volkswagen Beetle.

After studying motor engineering he joined the Porsche company in the 1960s and hoped the Porsche 917 racing car project he instigated, and which won Le Mans in 1970, would see clinch him the top job.

But relatives shunned him and he left in 1972 for the VW group. There he transformed the Audi brand, letting it play catch-up with rivals BMW and Mercedes-Benz by offering innovations like permanent four-wheel drive and TDI turbodiesel.

Brands

His record transforming Audi convinced the VW board to give him a chance to turnaround its failing parent in 1993, then struggling with Japanese rivals, poor build quality and major cashflow problems.

Once in charge he fired senior managers and introduced a new modular production system, cutting costs by using the same basis model across the growing VW family of brands.

This grew to 12 brands during his near-decade heading VW Group, including Skoda, Seat, Bentley, and Ducati as well as MAN and Scania trucks. As a chief executive with engineering background, perhaps the last of his kind, he was obsessed with engine development and build-quality issues such as consistent panelling gaps, rubber sealants and other components. In a leadership style that echoed Apple’s Steve Jobs, he reportedly terrorised engineers to hit their maximum achievable limit.

“And at this limit there is not only harmony in the home,” he wrote later. His nine years as VW chief executive turned a loss equivalent to €1 billion into a €2.6 billion profit.

As head of the VW supervisory board from 2002, he flipped a hostile bid by Porsche into VW’s takeover of Porsche instead – belated revenge for his relatives’ dismissal of him four decades earlier.

Magnetic gaze

Known for brittle personality, magnetic gaze and disconcerting pauses in sentences, a shafted manager warned later: “When he smiles, that’s when things get dangerous.”

Another described the sprawling VW headquarters in Wolfsburg in the Piëch era as “North Korea without the labour camps”.

He continued to pull the strings in Wolfsburg until one intrigue too many saw him lose out to then chief executive Martin Winterkorn.

Piëch’s involuntary ouster from the board in 2015 was, in hindsight, well timed: just six months later revelations broke of massive emissions fraud baked into the software of VW diesel engines. The scandal toppled Winterkorn, now under criminal investigation, and has cost VW more than €30 billion to date.

Some suggest the scandal’s seeds were sown in Piëch’s punishing leadership style. Others claim – without producing evidence – that it was Piëch who tipped off prosecutors that the board knew all about the diesel fraud – to settle a final score with Winterkorn.