Commentary

Piech, 'Product Guy' Who Drove Volkswagen To The Top, Dies At 82

Ferdinand Piëch, the visionary, demanding and controversial leader who transformed The Volkswagen Group into a global powerhouse and was largely responsible for building the reputations of brands such as Porsche, Audi and Bugatti, died unexpectedly Sunday in Rosenheim, Bavaria, at the age of 82.

“Along with his grandfather, Ferdinand Porsche, the designer of the Volkswagen Beetle, Mr. Piëch ranked among the most influential car executives of the last century. Under his leadership Volkswagen became the largest car company in Europe by a wide margin and rivaled Toyota for the title of largest automaker in the world,” Jack Ewing writes  for The New York Times.

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“Mr. Piëch was also a notoriously demanding boss who ran Volkswagen like a personal fief. His record of firing or demoting executives who failed to meet his goals, and his apparent tolerance for questionable behavior, led to criticism  that he created the authoritarian company culture that bred a costly emissions cheating scandal,” Ewing adds.

When the legendary Bob Lutz retired from the auto industry as General Motors’ vice chairman in 2010, he told freelance journalist David Kiley that Piëch was “not a person that I would particularly want to work for,” calling him “the autocrat’s autocrat.”

“But certainly, personal idiosyncrasies aside, without question, I think, [Piëch is] the greatest, living product guy. You talk about my role model when it comes to a detailed, laser-like focus on product excellence. It’s this absolute intolerance of mediocrity, where every product has got to reflect the best that the company can do…,” Lutz continued.

“While working as a 31-year old development chief at Porsche in 1968, he invested two-thirds of Porsche’s annual racing budget to build 25 Porsche 917 race cars with an untested radical 600 horsepower air-cooled 12-cylinder engine design,” writes  Martin Farrer for The Guardian.

“Family members accused Piëch of being irresponsible by risking the company’s budget but the Porsche 917 went on to become one of the most successful race cars in history,” Farrer continues.

“‘It is not possible to take a company to the top by focusing on the highest level of harmony,’ said Piëch, who has 12 children with four different women,” Farrer adds.

Indeed, “while working as development chief at Audi, he decided to keep his top engineers in the dark about the aerodynamic qualities of the Audi 100 by using wind tunnels in Hamburg, Stuttgart, Wolfsburg and Turin to develop the vehicle. That way no single engineer could defect to a rival with crucial know-how,” Edward Taylor and Jan Schwartz report  for Reuters.

“I was in the middle of it all, putting together the pieces of the puzzle,” Piëch wrote in his autobiography.

“Piëch's hierarchical, authoritarian management style contradicted fashionable management wisdom -- but proved extremely successful. He respected alpha males of equal caliber: a few statesmen, race drivers, even powerful union leaders. But if you didn't take responsibility, you were on your way out. When he became Audi CEO, he reportedly told his top management: 'Meine Herren, with one third of you I am satisfied, another third will have to improve, and the last third will have to leave.’ And thus it happened,” writes Jens Meiners for AutoBlog

Piëch was born in Vienna in 1937 to Louise Porsche and Anton Piëch on the cusp of World War II. 

“In his autobiography, Mr. Piëch wrote fondly of playing as a child in the massive halls of the new Volkswagen plant, commissioned by Adolf Hitler to create the first People’s Car. He described scenes such as the time he hid under a table while his grandfather and a group of Nazi officers discussed Germany’s Wunderwaffe, the V2 rocket,”  William Boston writes  in The Wall Street Journal.

“An engineer by training, Mr. Piëch influenced the development of a number of iconic cars, including the Audi 100 and Quattro, the Porsche 911 and the Bugatti Veyron, the fastest consumer car in the world. He was named Car Executive of the Century in 1999 by the Global Automotive Elections Foundation and inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in 2014,” Boston adds.

“‘First and foremost I always saw myself as a product person, and relied on gut instinct for market demand. Business and politics never distracted me from the core of our mission: to develop and make attractive cars,’ Piech wrote in his 2002 autobiography,” according to  an obituary in Automotive News.

“He is said to have collapsed in a restaurant in Rosenheim, Bavaria, in front of his wife, according to a report of the Bildnewspaper on Sunday. Subsequently, Piëch was hospitalized, where he died,” Martin Murphy writes  for Handelsblatt.

“Ruthless, brilliant and some would even say megalomaniacal, Piëch’s contributions to the modern automotive industry cannot be ignored. And even if it’s not fondly, he will be remembered,” Erik Shilling and Patrick George conclude in their obit for Jalopnik.

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