The auto industrys nastiest corporate fight in decades (and maybe ever) began unfolding a few years before the 1996 debut of Automotive News Europe and was not laid to rest – legally at least – until five years after our launch. But like mold on a cellar wall, the effects of the battle linger.
The clash pitted two giants, Volkswagen and General Motors, against each other over charges of document theft, corporate espionage and patent infringement. Criminal charges and civil suits were filed in Germany and the US. Personal and professional relationships were shattered.
In 1997, after years of hurling toxic insults and accusations at one another, the exhausted companies agreed to settle their civil suits. The following year, the criminal case in Germany was dropped. A US criminal case has been shelved, but not formally dropped.
At the center of the clash was a mercurial Spanish-born auto executive who brought fanatical energy and dedication to his job and who inspired near-Messianic devotion in his followers.
As head of GM purchasing in Europe, Jose Ignacio Lopez revolutionized the industry by ripping up long-standing contracts, ending cozy relationships and demanding ever-lower prices, steadily improving quality and sparking faster deliveries.
Simultaneously, Lopez was developing his Plateau 8 lean-manufacturing principles and pushing suppliers to adopt them. Suppliers screamed at the assault on their traditional ways of doing business but knuckled under, generating millions of dollars in savings for GM Europe.