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Business

Opinion: The end of a patriarch

Ferdinand Piëch's resignation as the chief of Volkswagen's supervisory board is the climax of an unparalleled power struggle. Henrik Böhme wonders, whether the company’s strong enough for a cultural revolution.

No single sentence has managed to convey the start of story unlike any other in Germany's long history as an industrial power.

"I am at a distance from Winterkorn." It was the beginning of the end, although two weeks ago, it wasn't clear yet, for whom.

But the sentence was a declaration of war from Ferdinand Piëch, full-time family patriarch and hobby supervisory board chief at Volkswagen. Seven years ago, Piëch himself installed Winterkorn as VW's CEO. Two men, one goal: make VW the world's no. 1 carmaker. That went well for awhile - very well, in fact. Volkswagen seemed on track to achieve this goal.

Eye to Eye

Bigger goals, bigger problems. That's what Piëch foresaw, through the eyes of the company's highest supervisory officer, before he launched his attack on Winterkorn. That's how he, the car fanatic from Salzburg, had always done things, when he stopped seeing eye-to-eye with a manager.

Deutsche Welle Henrik Böhme Chefredaktion GLOBAL Wirtschaft

DW's Henrik Böhme

But then the next key sentence in this story changed everything. After a crisis summit of Volkswagen's inner leadership circle, the steering committee endorsed Winterkorn as the "best possible CEO of Volkswagen." A blow for Piëch, indeed, a palace coup. Winterkorn won? Really? Piëch wasn't admitting defeat; he sought support for his cause, apparently unsuccessfully. And then, the next sentence. No, he wasn't trying to overthrow Winterkorn.

Life's work in ruins

Those who followed the story aren't quite over the shock. It became clearer and clearer: the old wolf ran off-track. His power instruments have stopped working. One last crisis meeting on Saturday. A four-point statement. Piëch's concession. The foundations of trust destroyed. The resignation as a consequence. The end of an unprecedented story. For Ferdinand K. Piëch, this is more than defeat. His life's work lies in ruins at his feet. Volkswagen, family, money. These three things, in this order, are important to him. He said that once. But nobody can take away the magnificent success story Volkswagen wrote in the last two decades. With him, Piëch, as the star, or the puppet master.

Where to, Volkswagen?

And now the tragic end. Volkswagen is huge, with 12 brands, €200 billion and 600,000 employees. Piëch's recognized the urgent need for more than just a new structure, but a new corporate culture. The archaic management structures, the strict hierarchy, the closed system – all failing to keep up with the times. But it would have been hard for him to change this, if he insisted on holding on to his throne as a patriarch, stabbing managers in the back to solve problems.

The question: does Volkswagen have the strength and the right people at the top, to lead a cultural revolution? Its size alone won't save it. It remains to be seen, whether the company manages to stay on course, despite the turbulence of the past days. The general assembly in two weeks, usually a dry affair, promises to be the most exciting in years.

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