Trouble brewing at Volkswagen: VW chairman Piech attacks CEO Winterkorn

Published: 13 April 2015

► Ferdinand Piech vs Martin Winterkorn
► Public spat played out in Der Spiegel
► But board rally behind CEO, Piech looks isolated 

Volkswagen chairman Ferdinand Piech has attacked his own chief executive Martin Winterkorn in an extraordinary interview published in German newspaper Der Spiegel

The mercurial VW scion said he was keeping himself ‘at a distance’ from his CEO, as the board was losing patience with sluggish inroads into the US market with models such as the Passat, under-performing profitability and the lack of a VW-developed budget car.

Piech also claimed that Winterkorn was unlikely to succeed him as chairman of the supervisory board.

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The fall-out from Piech’s comments

A fight is now brewing. Winterkorn, whose contract is up for renewal in 2016, has told close aides that he will fight to keep his job. 

The 67-year-old had been positioning himself to replace Piech, when the 77-year-old chairman finally steps down as chairman. And the Bloomberg news wire reports that Winterkorn is adamant his strategy will prove the correct choice in the long term.

Volkswagen’s supervisory board steering committee is due to meet this week to discuss what has now become a full-blown leadership crisis. Will one man fall on his sword in this power struggle? We’re about to find out… 

Rift at the top of Volkswagen: what next?

Any power struggle in Wolfsburg is more complicated than it may at first appear. The Piech and Porsche dynasties control 51% of the Volkswagen empire, giving family influence great sway.

And there were signs over the weekend that they were rallying behind Winterkorn, who has led Volkswagen for eight years. Board member Wolfgang Porsche claimed in a statement that his cousin Piech had given his ‘personal opinion’ and was not talking in his capacity as chairman. Nor had he cleared his remarks with family members, Porsche insisted.

Crucially, the state of Lower Saxony, which owns a fifth of the voting rights in VW, has also come out and backed Winterkorn.

Under Volkswagen’s terms of incorporation, the CEO cannot be removed unless parties can prove that the leader had pursued a strategy that had greatly harmed it.

It looks like Piech, once deemed an omnipotent fixture in the Volkswagen empire, is looking increasingly isolated.

By Tim Pollard

Group digital editorial director, motoring news magnet