COMMENTARY

Audi's management shake-up is half-baked

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After months of speculation, Audi has replaced four of its seven management board members. The Volkswagen Group premium brand wants to calm things down amid its diesel-emissions scandal and undertake a new beginning. But the changes hardly qualify as a clean break with the past.

Audi's supervisory board, which is responsible for hiring and firing top executives, had good reasons for shaking up the automaker's top ranks.

Sales chief Dietmar Voggenreiter and production chief Hubert Waltl disqualified themselves with their management mistakes.

Voggenreiter came under fire after Audi's dispute with Chinese dealers led to a decline in sales early in the year. Audi brought SAIC Motor aboard as a second partner in China after previously having FAW Group as its exclusive partner. It was a strategic error that cost the company dearly.

On the production side, Waltl upset Audi's labor leaders, who hold half of the seats on the supervisory board. They were upset at decisions to build new Audi electric cars outside of Germany and accused Waltl of lacking a strategy to keep Audi's German plants operating at capacity.

Internal candidates

All four of Audi's new top management team come from within VW Group, which is perplexing. Behind the scenes over the past few weeks, there must have been some lively haggling about personnel matters.

The new human resources chief, Wendelin Goebel, was a close colleague of former VW Group CEO Martin Winterkorn for years – and thus a confidant of former VW Chairman Ferdinand Piech, who still wields influence within the group. Goebel is rumored to have detailed knowledge about internal matters. In light of the ongoing diesel investigations, Goebel's is a risk even if he is not in the sights of the authorities.

With Goebel and the other new managers, VW Group is betting on executives who so far have not surfaced as major figures and are unknown to the public for the most part.

Bram Schot, the new sales chief and former marketing chief for VW Commercial Vehicles, is a blank slate when it comes to emissions cheating. And the new production chief Peter Koessler and finance chief Alexander Seitz presumably have clean hands. But there is still a question as to whether four new management board members who have been firmly rooted and socialized in the VW Group can provide a breath of fresh air at Audi.

One thing is certain: There is no stomach for external solutions. It would have been a clearly visible sign of a new beginning if one or two VW Group newcomers had been assigned to the board.

The boardroom shake-up leaves the suspicion that it mainly involves political symbolism and is a rush job to calm things down inside Audi and with the public just before the important Frankfurt auto show next month.

Stadler's future

The really key question is still up in the air. What's next for Audi CEO Rupert Stadler? As CEO, he bears the political responsibility, not just for Audi's part in VW Group's diesel crisis but also for the strategic problems in China. Many people at Audi believe he is no longer tenable. And the current board reshuffle won't change that.

In May, the supervisory board extended the contract of Stadler, who has run Audi since 2007, for another five years. There is a rumor circulating among some executives that a deal is allowing Stadler to stay on while investigations into the emissions cheating by the Munich state prosecutor's office proceed or until they are concluded.

So the big departure from the Audi management board may still be to come. As long as Stadler is chief executive, Audi will have a hard time calming things down.

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