GUIDO REINKING

How independent can Audi still be?

Guido Reinking is editor-in-chief of Automobilwoche, a sister publication of Automotive News Europe .Guido Reinking is editor-in-chief of Automobilwoche, a sister publication of Automotive News Europe .
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A joke is making the rounds at Volkswagen Group about Audi, the automaker's premium brand. If someone mentions the phrase "Audi executives," another person says, "Are there still Audi executives?'' – and gets lots of laughs.

It's not so far off the truth. The seven-person Audi management board has only one member whom you could call a dyed-in-the-wool Audi person. He is production chief Frank Dreves who has worked at the company – with a short stopover at Seat – for 30 years.

The other board members earned their laurels in the far reaches of the VW Group or outside of it. Monday was the first day at work for three new Audi board members: Development chief Wolfgang Duerheimer, sales chief Luca de Meo and purchasing chief Bernd Marten.

VW Chairman Ferdinand Piech said that "none better could be found outside the company" for 31 leadership positions the group as a whole needed to fill. From Audi's standpoint, however, the new board members are outsiders sent in by VW.

A high degree of independence has always been part of the brand's self-image. One story is legendary: How the first Audi 100 was developed in secret and subsequently assured the survival of the brand.

Off-the-books projects cropped up again and again even in more recent history, from the fully galvanized body to the 12-cylinder diesel. They enabled Audi to differentiate itself from VW. The independence has apparently gone too far recently for the Wolfsburg headquarters.

How much can Audi permit itself in the future? In this regard, the expectations of Duerheimer's 7,000 new employees at the Audi research and development are weighing especially heavily on him. Will he succeed in eking out a high degree of technical exclusivity for the brand? That is the crucial questions, not just for the mood in Audi's German factories in Ingolstadt and Neckarsulm, but also for the success of this premium brand.

If there is any doubt, it could help to remind Piech how he himself, as Audi development chief, repeatedly exhausted and exceeded the limits of corporate reason. And it didn't hurt Audi at all.

You can reach Guido Reinking at greinking@craincom.de.

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