The air of self-confidence that convinced the Volkswagen Group's supervisory board that company veteran Matthias Mueller had what it takes to lead the 12-brand automotive giant is coming back to haunt him.
This week Mueller embarked on his first trip to the U.S., the epicenter of its diesel crisis, since he was appointed VW Group CEO in September. He badly needed to score points at the Detroit auto show ahead of his meeting with the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Instead Mueller botched it.
The mood in the U.S. is hostile. While some of VW’s European diesel owners already have an appointment at their workshop to remove the emissions cheat defeat device, U.S. customers who took the risk of investing into a niche technology are still waiting to know what will happen.
Mueller’s designated North America CEO, Winfried Vahland, left the company days before he was due to start his new job and no other candidates are in sight. The U.S. Justice Department is now suing VW for tens of billions and several state attorney generals attacked Volkswagen for using German privacy laws to withhold important evidence from U.S. prosecutors.
Strengths now weaknesses
As Porsche chief, Mueller authentically represented the brand, carrying with ease a natural authority that made him the perfect man for that job. He could casually make fun of autonomous driving, one of the biggest trends shaping the industry, and it worked since what Porsche owner in his right mind would give up the thrill of steering a 911 Turbo?
But as a VW Group CEO trying to win back trust from U.S. customers who feel betrayed by the carmaker’s deceit, these strengths turn into weaknesses. His pride rubs people up the wrong way. It undermines his numerous and repeated attempts to say sorry for the scandal, since his apologies lack humility and appear scripted. His desire to portray Volkswagen as a company that has some glaring weaknesses but is not inherently criminal may work in Germany but it comes across as tone-deaf in the U.S.
The warning signs began with the news conference in December where he said that he saw light at the end of the tunnel, even as he knew that U.S. law firm Jones Day was nowhere close to finishing its forensic investigation. Then he said he was handing ownership of the issue to his purchasing chief, Francisco Javier Garcia Sanz, since Mueller himself was too busy with a strategic review of the company to be announced in the middle of this year. Garcia Sanz was not in Detroit nor has he commented publicly about how he will get to the bottom of the fraud.
An interview with NPR where Mueller had to to answer emotionally loaded questions may have dealt yet another bitter setback to VW. First he said that Volkswagen hadn’t lied to U.S. regulators, they just "didn’t understand the question." Then after the interview aired, VW requested a follow-up interview where he ended up apologizing (again), which is what he has been trying to get away from doing.