MUNICH - In the end, perhaps Bernd Pischetsrieder took a step too far – and lost his job.
When the Volkswagen group chairman walked into a meeting last Tuesday in Wolfsburg – a steering committee hastily convened by VW Supervisory Board Chairman Ferdinand Piëch – Pischetsrieder was defeated. It was the latest in a series of setbacks suffered over the past 12 months.
Anxious to curtail the growing influence of Porsche at VW, Pischets-rieder supported a plan to get truckmaker MAN to take a 10 percent stake in VW, two VW group insiders said.
MANs 10 percent stake, together with Lower Saxonys 20.75 percent holding would have been more than Porsches 21.2 stake in VW.
That was too much for Piëch – the man who really runs VW. In a stormy boardroom session, everything came to the forefront, and 12 months of missteps cost Pischetsrieder his job.
The bottom line is that we didnt like the way Pischetsrieder reacted to our complaints, said one high-level Porsche board member who requested anonymity. The restructuring was not going fast enough at VW.
VW sources say Pischetsrieder, 58, resigned when he realized he had lost the support of the majority of supervisory board members. He leaves
December 31. Audi Chairman Martin Winterkorn, 59, will take over on January 1. The change happens less than seven months after Pischetsrieders contract was extended by five years.
Since taking over in 2002, Pischets-rieder has had frequent disputes with Piëch over VW strategy, ownership structure and control of the company.
But support had been waning for some time and the elevation of Winterkorn looked more likely in the past two months, said a top Audi executive who didnt want to be identified.
The trouble started last November with the board appointment of Horst Neumann over Pischetsrieders objection. It concluded with a debate last week over VWs role in a potential multibillion-euro deal to create one of the worlds largest truck groups.
Pischetsrieders trail of lost battles is long:
- Neumanns appointment last November as head of human resources followed a widely publicized sex and bribery scandal in the company. Neumann, an Audi HR executive, was Piëchs, not Pischetsrieders choice.
- Pischetsrieder and VW brand Chairman Wolfgang Bernhard, wanted agreements from unions to extend the German workweek to 35 hours from 28.8 hours. Component plants were considered for closure, but none were shuttered. The workweek was only extended to 33 hours for the same pay. It was a bitter compromise.
- In March, Piëch undermined Pischets-rieder publicly by telling the Wall Street Journal that it was an open issue whether Pischetsrieders contract would be extended in May. Piëch was also unhappy about a decision to withdraw the Phaeton luxury sedan from the US . Half of the company is following my leadership and the other half is not and is not successful, he said.
- The final setback came after discussions involving truckmakers MAN and Scania. Pischetsrieder wanted to support MANs takeover of Scania, of which VW is the largest shareholder.
Last week everything came to a head. A VW insider said Piëch was upset because Christian Wulff, head of the state of Lower Saxony, VWs second-biggest shareholder, wanted MAN to buy 10 percent of VW equity. MAN and Lower Saxony would then have had more shares in VW than Porsche. The deal would have allowed Lower Saxony to counter-balance the influence of Porsche, which is controlled by the Piëch and Porsche families.
Pischetsrieder supported Wulffs plan, the two insiders confirmed. But when Piëch found out, he called a meeting of the supervisory board steering committee. Pischetsrieder quickly realized that of the six members present, five were against him, including the union representatives and Porsche CEO Wendelin Wiedeking. Wulff was the only Pischets-rieder supporter in the room, but eventually even he recanted.
Pischetsrieder knew it was time to go.
Said Max Warburton, a European auto analyst at UBS in London: Piëch and Porsche wanted more control of VW and Pischetsrieder was an obstacle to that.
You may e-mail Jason Stein at [email protected]
Guido Reinking, Luca Ciferri and Felix Bauer contributed