FRANKFURT/BERLIN -- In November 2014, the captains of Germany's auto industry gathered for an annual ceremony honoring the year's best cars in a 19th-floor private club with sweeping views of Berlin.
As dozens of corporate bosses talked and sipped wine in the wood-paneled salon, Porsche chief Matthias Mueller received three Golden Steering Wheel awards -- part of the Volkswagen Group's six-trophy haul. But the most valuable thing he may have picked up that evening was the business card of Thomas Sedran, an industry veteran and former head of General Motors in Europe.
After being appointed CEO of Volkswagen a year later, Mueller quickly rang up Sedran. VW had acknowledged rigging 11 million diesel vehicles to cheat on emissions tests, effectively putting profit before public health. The company was criticized as a trickster that had besmirched the hallowed Made-in-Germany brand. As he sought to pull the company back from the brink, Mueller needed someone with a fresh perspective who could help him make tough decisions. Recalling Sedran's work in restructuring GM's European operations, which included closing a German factory and shutting down the Chevrolet brand in the region, he invited the executive to VW's Wolfsburg headquarters for a chat.
For decades, there had been little upside to critical thinking in VW's corporate culture, and Mueller wanted an outsider who might give him an unvarnished view of the company. Meeting in the office of his predecessor, Martin Winterkorn, Mueller found himself perched behind a huge desk, a symbol of the prestige and power that felt at odds with his push for more openness and cooperation. So he stepped around the massive wooden slab to meet Sedran eye-to-eye, sitting beside him in one of the modest visitor's chairs.
Sedran outlined steps VW might take to absorb the blow from the scandal while still investing in the changes disrupting the industry. Less than a month later, Mueller hired Sedran for the newly created position of strategy chief, tasked with remapping the direction of a colossus with 620,000 workers, 121 factories, a dozen brands ranging from the budget Skoda to Lamborghini and Bugatti, and development spending that exceeds Apple's.
"When Mueller called me, I thought 'Awesome! What a chance,'" says Sedran, who has been asked to end inefficiencies like separate demand forecasts from the sales, purchasing, and finance departments. "My job is to step on a lot of people's toes."
VW needs some toe-stepping, or even stomping. Like all of its key rivals, the company must invest billions to adapt to the looming shift to electric cars and self-driving technology. But the VW brand, Volkswagen's largest unit, is barely profitable. And unlike its competitors, Volkswagen faces criminal investigations, hundreds of lawsuits, and incalculable damage to its image due to the emissions cheating.