"Dieselgate" took only five days to topple Martin Winterkorn as Volkswagen Group CEO 48 hours before his nearly 9-year term would have been extended until the end of 2018. That's fast by any corporate standards -- it's light speed for a company known for its ponderous inertia.
On Friday VW's supervisory board will discuss who will replace Winterkorn at the helm of the carmaker instead of his contract extension. There are some highly qualified candidates including Porsche CEO Matthias Mueller. His sports car brand grows from record to record, earns close to 3 billion euros a year, and -- best of all -- barely relies on diesels for sales. It never used any of the group's EA 189 engines that were manipulated to fool U.S. emissions tests.
VW Chairman Berthold Huber told reporters on Wednesday that the board’s top directors "are resolved to start afresh credibly and with all determination."
If Volkswagen is indeed serious about getting out in front of a crisis that cleaved off more than a quarter of its market capitalization, then Mueller, a longtime confidant of Winterkorn, cannot be CEO. Nor can virtually any of his colleagues -- due to guilt by association (for lack of a better word).
The board’s choice for a new CEO is every bit as much a political decision as it is business one. VW needs to find someone that most credibly defines a break with the kind of clubby traditions of the past that helped foster such illegal activity.
Dieselgate after all is not the first scandal to rock VW. Roughly a decade ago management was found to systematically circumvent compliance in a sex and bribes scandal that resulted in a 33-month jail term for the automaker's former works council boss Klaus Volkert.
Ideally, VW's board should appoint a chief executive from outside. But finding a qualified candidate to run a company with 600,000 workers that build 10 million cars a year is not easy at such short notice.
It took the board four months to decide on CFO Hans Dieter Poetsch as its new chairman to replace longtime patriarch Ferdinand Piech. Moreover, even if someone could be identified, the job is daunting. Even the most determined reformer can be stymied by collective stonewalling from VW’s myriad vested interests entrenched deep within the company.
Instead, the most logical solution at this point is to appoint Herbert Diess to the role. He already runs the namesake VW brand, and better, he can rightly claim that he was still working as a senior executive at BMW up to December last year and only assumed his VW post in July.
Being “the new guy” who comes to Wolfsburg after a career spent at a rival German carmaker is typically a handicap at Volkswagen. Former VW brand chief Wolfgang Bernhard, an ex-Daimler high-flyer, lasted just two years before resigning.
This time, however, it could be an enormous and invaluable advantage in running what is the world’s largest carmaker by unit sales so far this year.