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Mixed mood in Wolfsburg as VW leaders battle for driver's seat

As VW's top dogs Ferdinand Piëch and Martin Winterkorn hammer out their differences in Salzburg, Austria, the mood at the firm's headquarters is divided. Janelle Dumalaon reports from Wolfsburg.

The Volkswagen plant and its four smokestacks stand prominently on the banks of the Mittellandkanal in its home city of Wolfsburg, central Germany. On the other side of the canal, there is a promenade, along which VW employees clad in a mix of suits and work uniforms make their way to work.

The promenade fills and empties depending on the time of day. Volkswagen employees change shifts three times a day, in a pattern long-established and scrupulously maintained. Today was no different. In fact, there was zero indication of the upheaval in the company upper ranks - at least until some employees start speaking their minds.

"I think [Volkswagen supervisory board chairman Ferdinand] Piëch should publicly apologize, and step down and spend more time with his grandchildren. Play in the sandbox. He may be getting a little senile," said Bernd Neve, a Volkswagen metalworker.

Bildergalerie Volkswagen

Piëch (left) and Winterkorn (right) have not always seen eye to eye

Neve of course, is talking about a story now well-known. Volkswagen chairman Ferdinand Piëch made comments to the media, expressing "distance" to chief executive Martin Winterkorn.

The comments fueled widespread speculation about Winterkorn's career at the world's number two carmaker. The CEO had been trying to extend his contract beyond its set end in late 2016.

Showdown in Salzburg

An inner circle of six from the supervisory board announced a Thursday conference in Salzburg, Austria, signaling that the public spat between Volkswagen chairman Piëch and CEO Winterkorn was about to come to a head.

The row, and what it means for Volkswagen, is a topic for conjecture at the Tunnel Schänke bei Bruno, a smoky tavern up the road away from the promenade where Volkswagen workers often like to kick back with their beer after their shifts.

The pub is small, familiar, and everybody knows everybody. Here, Neve continued, "I'm actually quite upset about it. He shouldn't have made such statements in public. It only hurts the company."

Neve said it's been a recurring topic among his colleagues. Around two-thirds of the people with whom he works are pro-Winterkorn, and would be sorry to see the embattled chief go if it came to that, he said.

Popular leader

Winterkorn's popularity is undeniable - in the tavern and beyond. Many credit him with the company's success. This year, record profits meant each Volkswagen employee was paid nearly 6,000 euros ($6,400) in bonuses. But popular or no, some employees were hesitant to say Winterkorn's departure may herald hard times within the company - or even very different times than before.

Jan Peter, who works in the IT department, said he wasn't at all worried. "At the moment it doesn't really affect me. I don't know what happened there, or why," he said. "But the people up there, they will have to fix it."

Back at the promenande, several VW employees were spending some minutes in the sun before their trains arrive. A suited man who did not want to give his name or designation, said the situation had to be treated circumspectly.

"I find it a bit unfortunate, I've had the opportunity to work with both Piëch and Winterkorn and found them both to be great people - although Piëch is also known to be an extreme man given to surprising maneuvers," he said. "But everyone knows shakeups in high-level management are par for the course. Piëch and Winterkorn know that too."

Another Volkswagen employee along the promenade said whatever the group of six decide regarding the fate of VW management, his life was unlikely to change.

Volkswagen und Porsche

VW is the second biggest car-maker in the world



"It's a big company, it's unlikely that things will all be turned upside down overnight," he said. "We also have to accept that the company has controlling shareholders, what they say goes."

He added, "we'll probably still be paid well anyway."

No worries

Wolfsburg is also home to the Volkswagen Museum. A lone receptionist mans the entrance, but the museum is entirely devoid of visitors - not surprisingly on a sunny Thursday afternoon. The rooms house several dozen VW models, standing in neat rows, each with their year of manufacture on their bumpers.

Before getting to the cars however, one has to pass through a hall with blue panels lining either side. The blue panels detail Volkswagen's AG's nearly eighty-year history. There's one on the right side which says Piëch ascended Volkswagen's leadership in 1993, and one further down the hall detailing the start of Winterkorn's reign in 2007.

It might not be long before a new blue panel is added to the end of the column, with the details of whoever ends up replacing Winterkorn. But for Volkswagen employees and the rest of Wolfsburg, it will be business as usual until then, and probably beyond.

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