Business World

Thursday 26 April 2018

The wheels come off a stellar career as Winterkorn quits scandal-hit Volkswagen

Volkswagen chief executive Martin Winterkorn stepped down yesterday. Photo: Reuters
Volkswagen chief executive Martin Winterkorn stepped down yesterday. Photo: Reuters

Chad Thomas

Volkswagen chief executive Martin Winterkorn, who during nearly a decade at the helm catapulted VW to the top spot in global sales, stepped down yesterday after admitting the automaker cheated on US emissions tests.

"Volkswagen needs a fresh start - also in terms of personnel," Mr Winterkorn said in a statement. "I am clearing the way for this fresh start with my resignation."

The move capped a dramatic fall from grace that began last Friday with the revelation that the Wolfsburg, Germany-based company fitted diesel-powered vehicles with software that circumvented air pollution controls, then lied about it to the US Environmental Protection Agency.

The 68-year-old boss, who apologised for the affair, was unable to hang on as the stock price plummeted 35pc over two days and pressure grew from the German government for quick action. Mr Winterkorn, who took over in 2007, led a turnaround that propelled VW from an also-ran that had cut 20,000 German jobs under his predecessor to a global powerhouse with about 600,000 employees that included a stable of 12 brands from Lamborghini supercars to Scania heavy trucks. He expanded aggressively, boosting the number of production sites around the world to more than 100 locations, with an emphasis on China and North America.

An avid football fan, he was accustomed to boardroom brawls and until yesterday always came out on top. As chief of the luxury Audi division, where he set in motion a doubling of product offerings with models such as the Q7 SUV, he sparred with then-VW boss Bernd Pischetsrieder over the direction of the company, eventually leading to Pischetsrieder's ouster.

Faced with a takeover attempt from Porsche boss Wendelin Wiedeking, Mr Winterkorn fought off that effort as the global financial crisis undid the suitor's company, turning the tables on his foe to buy the Porsche sports-car brand.

At his side throughout was his confidante and mentor Ferdinand Piech, the automaker's supervisory board chairman and patriarch of the Porsche-Piech clan that owns 50.7pc of VW's voting stock.

When Mr Piech turned on Mr Winterkorn this year, the chief executive fought for his job and, to the surprise of many company insiders, won. (Bloomberg)

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