Piech's Steely Blue Eyes Show Up at NAIAS

He was a late addition to the Volkswagen delegation sent from Wolfsburg to Detroit. According to one VW exec, added at just the last moment. Supervisory Board member Ferdinand Piech arrived in Detroit Saturday, and strode around VW’s show stand on Sunday, slowly, as he often does. Sometimes he walks as if he has a slight infirmity. Other times, he just looks contemptuous of all around him, a condition that also seems to slow his gate. His steely blue eyes fixed on only those whose company he wishes.

But however slow he may move, he is proceeding with all due speed to restructure and reposition Volkswagen the way he wants his company to be and look after he is gone from the scene. Piech engineered the dismissal of his handpicked management board chairman Bernd Pischetsrieder, and installed his old friend Martin Winterkorn. He then positioned his former secretary, Rupert Stadler, as head of Audi. Meantime, Wolfgang Bernhard, the head of Volkswagen brand, is about to leave the building after making a month of personal visits to supervisory board members trying to get them to reconsider the restructuring moves being pushed by Piech and supported by the labor union. Talk about peeing up a rope!

Piech has been busy. He has orchestrated the purchase of VW shares by Porsche AG, the company his family controls through special voting stock. Porsche is expected to own 29.9% of VW by later this year. It’s an arrangement that hardly passes the smell test in the U.S. in the age of Sarbanes-Oxley. But it flies in Germany.

One former VW executive who spied Piech on the show stand today commented that he is the smartest engineer he had ever come across. I can’t vouch for that. But I do know that Piech, besides pioneering the Quattro all-wheel-drive system in Audi, also foisted upon the car buying public the Volkswagen Phaeton and needless, heavy and cumbersome W8 engine that found its way into the Volkswagen Passat. Also, let’s not forget that Piech presided, as chairman of VW, over a dismal era of manufacturing quality and the 28-hour work week that made, until it was just changed under Pischetsrieder, VW workers the most expensive and unproductive auto workers in the world. It’s no wonder that the union is lining up to vote Piech another term as chairman of the supervisory board.

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