(Reuters) - For those who don't know him well, Ferdinand Piech's recent retreat from the limelight might be seen as a sign the Volkswagen chairman was preparing to step back from leading the car-maker that aspires to be the world's biggest.
Piech didn't show up at the Detroit motor show in January and shunned the media last month at the VW group night in Geneva, an annual fixture in his calendar where Europe's largest carmaker traditionally boasts about its new products.
But even after 18 years at the helm of VW, nine of which as chief executive officer, it's wrong to assume the mastermind of VW's global expansion is tired of his work, in poor health, or on his way out, officials at the company said, although they chose not to explain his absences.
Instead, the canny strategist is expected to receive shareholder backing for a third term as chairman at the annual general meeting on Thursday, two days after he turns 75. If Piech serves out the five-year period, the balding Austrian will become the oldest-ever chairman of a listed German company.
"Piech is still the undisputed leader of VW," Helmut Becker, a former chief economist at Bayerische Motoren Werke who now runs a consulting business in Munich, told Reuters. "He has his finger in every pie that VW management bakes."
It was Piech who spearheaded VW's expansion to an eleven-brand entity that makes everything from fuel-efficient city cars to 40-tonne trucks. When he was CEO, VW bought ultra-luxury nameplates Bugatti, Bentley and Lamborghini and integrated the mass-market Seat and Skoda brands.
And the buying spree isn't over yet. VW's luxury division Audi is expected to announce the purchase of motorcycle company Ducati ahead of the AGM. P i ech, himself a Ducati owner, has long coveted the Italian company for its expertise in design and light engines.
Buying Ducati raises the VW brand portfolio to twelve, a number that Piech - who has a dozen children from four relationships - said in 2009 would be the perfect size for the VW group.
But for some analysts, the Ducati deal is a risky sideshow that reinforces the view of Piech as a stubborn leader who is sometimes driven by whims that defy industrial logic and which even his fellow managers don't understand.
One of his most disputed decisions was the development of a flagship sedan called the Phaeton at a cost of more than 1 billion euros ($1.3 billion) to take the VW brand upscale.
The Phaeton's lavish plant in Dresden, Germany, operated below capacity for years and the model was withdrawn from the United States in 2006 after the car failed to meet sales targets.
"If I want to achieve something, I face up to the problem and pull things through, without paying attention to what happens around me," Piech wrote in his book "Auto.Biographie" published in 2002.