Will This Man Drive Volkswagen?

A onetime BMW boss is emerging as a likely successor to Piech

Ferdinand Piech has cut such a powerful figure at Volkswagen that it's hard to imagine the company without the autocratic Austrian at the helm. Piech, after all, pulled VW out of a deep slump in the mid-1990s with wonderfully engineered new models. But even bigger-than-life figures have to leave the stage eventually: Piech, 63, is required by company rules to step down in 2002. The crucial question: Who will take his place?

Well, the German auto industry is currently abuzz with rumors that a clear front-runner in the race to succeed Piech has emerged: Bernd Pischetsrieder, 52, the former head of BMW who joined VW less than two years ago. VW won't comment, and company insiders are circumspect. "I think there's a 60% probability he'll get it," says one executive. "But you never know with Piech. He is always good for a surprise."

"A GENTLEMAN." The choice of Pischetsrieder would be something of an irony. This is, after all, the executive who got the ax at BMW after the company's acquisition of Britain's Rover degenerated into an outright fiasco. But there are good and bad reasons for Piech to settle on Pischetsrieder. Before the Rover debacle, he helped turn the small Bavarian luxury carmaker into one of the world's most advanced and flexible auto manufacturers. Pischetsrieder's expertise in the luxury business is also a tremendous asset for Piech. The VW boss has bought the Bugatti and Bentley badges and launched plans for a VW-brand luxury car, the D1.

As head of VW's Spanish unit, Seat, Pischetsrieder hasn't done badly. Last year, Seat sales in Europe rose 4%. And Piech has entrusted Pischetsrieder with responsibility for the group's overall quality--a job he previously held himself.

Before Pischetsrieder joined VW, he and Piech crossed swords in a takeover battle between BMW and VW for the Rolls-Royce car business. Piech was said to have been mollified by Pischetsrieder's efforts to negotiate a face-saving arrangement--efforts quashed by the BMW board. "He was a gentleman trying to please everyone," says a BMW executive.

That's Pischetsrieder's style. And it may be a problem. "He's not hungry. He's not hard enough," says a German car analyst. Some former colleagues say Pischetsrieder is tougher than he looks. But others say he was overshadowed at BMW by Eberhard von Kuenheim. Von Kuenheim, the previous CEO, was close to BMW's owners, the Quandt family, and he became supervisory board chief after retiring from management. If Piech becomes VW's next supervisory board chairman, as is widely expected, he could try to keep running the company through a pliant Pischetsrieder.

The formal task of picking Piech's successor could take months to conclude and is in the hands of VW's supervisory board. Other possible candidates for the top slot are Technical Dervelopment Director Martin Winterkorn and Jens Neumann, who runs the booming North America business.

Pischetsrieder has one more advantage. His still cordial relations with the Quandts would position VW as the preferred buyer if the family did decide to sell BMW--a deal that Piech has long desired. If that happened, Pischetsrieder would be one nice guy who finished first.

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