Corporate wheel turns at VW, but workers are staying calm | Business| Economy and finance news from a German perspective | DW | 13.04.2018
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Corporate wheel turns at VW, but workers are staying calm

With a new boss known for finding efficiencies installed at VW, it appears that change is coming for Europe's largest car group. Yet workers at the company’s Wolfsburg headquarters are calm and positive about the future.

It's an ordinary afternoon outside "Gate East” of Volkswagen's enormous headquarters in Wolfsburg, and as you might expect for the largest car manufacturing plant in the world, it's rather busy. 

Shuttle buses shoot by every minute, ferrying workers to and from multiple sections of this monumental gearhead's fantasy, 6,500,000 m² (6,800 acres) in size. There is a constant stream of workers walking in and out of the gate, the vast majority in overalls and work wear.

They are well used to the media here. The Dieselgate scandal and its subsequent reverberations over the last few years have brought the world's press to the banks of Germany's Midland Canal. Most requests for comment on the latest VW developments are batted away.

"I don't have time."

"I have to catch my train."

"I have no interest in talking to journalists."

Yet despite the reticence, these are interesting times for the some 60,000 people employed here and the hundreds of thousands more around the world. As a warm April sun was shining down on workers streaming in and out, somewhere inside this vast labyrinth the corporate gears were moving.

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By the time the sun had set, Herbert Diess had been officially confirmed as the new VW Group CEO, announced alongside a raft of deep structural changes at the car company.

Turning the screw

"We're all pretty surprised, because we think Matthias Müller has done a good job," Kathrin Schulz told DW just after her shift at the plant's procurement section finished up.

"It has come very suddenly, but nonetheless we think that Diess will do a good job too. Everyone has a different approach but we see it positively."

Read more: VW turns to Diess, the uncompromising cost cutter

The former VW brand chief takes on the top job with a powerful reputation for cost cutting and making savings. "He has demonstrated to impressive effect the speed and rigor with which he can implement radical transformation processes," was the way Volkswagen's press office publicized it.

Yet Diess's skillset — while delighting bosses — has previously brought him into conflict with union leaders and worker representatives, both at VW and in his previous role at BMW. 

Given the major changes the car industry is undergoing, the arrival into the top job of a man with a reputation for radical restructuring might give staff a few jitters. Yet here in Wolfsburg, it appears the workers have grown accustomed to upheaval since Dieselgate and the mood is calm and positive.

"He has a reputation as a tough reorganizer, so let's see what direction it takes," said Marcus Vogel, 40, who has been working in one of the warehouses at Wolfsburg since 2003.

VW-Markenchef Herbert Diess (picture-alliance/dpa/S. Kembowski)

Herbert Diess, the new boss of the Volkswagen Group

"You can already see that the screw is being turned a bit and since all the things with the diesel scandal, you realize that there is something there. We hope that it will not be too much for the staff but I'm optimistic, things are running quite well at the moment."

For Ms Schulz, working in Wolfsburg for 22 years, making clever savings is already an essential part of her role in procurement, where she purchases on behalf of Volkswagen. "It is always about making cost savings for us," she says.

"I do not know him (Diess) very well, so I can't judge it yet. He will have new ideas because he has different thoughts but we are positive about the whole thing, so we have no fears, no fears."

The beating heart of the region

One only needs to arrive in Wolfsburg by train to understand immediately just how profoundly important Volkswagen is to the city and the region.

As the train edges towards Wolfsburg central station from the east, you first pass the Volkswagen Arena, home of VfL Wolfsburg, the soccer team owned by the carmaker whose millions helped the club to a German Bundesliga title in 2009.

Then comes another big employer: "Autostadt", a large tourist complex celebrating both the history of Volkswagen and the automobile in general. And then comes the gigantic factory — miles and miles of it, stretching far into the distance along the canal. Trouble here means trouble for the city, the region and far beyond the borders of Germany.

"For the whole region it is very important; for Wolfsburg, for Lower Saxony and in every direction for 100 kilometers," said one worker, who has been working in technical development at the plant for the last 20 years.

"There is so much propaganda in the press, what comes out at the end, you have to see," he told DW. "There is always a bit of truth, but we cannot influence it anyway, we have to wait and see what happens."

Ready for the road ahead

The Volkswagen statement on Thursday spoke of "highly dynamic change" in Volkswagen and the industry as a whole. The workers here are in little doubt that change is coming, but for them, the process has already begun, even if there is now a new pair of hands on the wheel. Volkswagen's much vaunted "Strategy 2025" is centered around e-mobility, and billions have already been invested.

"If you are responsible for years for diesel engines, then it is difficult to change suddenly, especially when the media pushes for things to change so fast," said Ms Schulz.

"We don't think it has to be so fast, but there's no way around it, it has to take that direction and there's a lot going on inside VW already. New departments are being set up, new employees are being recruited. A lot is being and has been done."

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When the Dieselgate scandal broke in September 2015, for a long time, morale here was low. But Ms Schulz noticed over the past 18 months that things were changing for the better.

"In the beginning, the fear was very great because we did not know what had happened," she said. "But everything is calmer now, both internally and externally, and the fears are gone."

For the man in the blue Volkswagen sweater, finishing up his shift in technical development, if more change is coming, then that is a natural process to be welcomed as much as anything else.

"Something will change, but things have always changed here," he says.

"We have had other crises here. There was a four-day week here not so long ago, because there was not enough work. Now you have a lot of work and we are building the group again. That's normal, every corporation will change many times in its life."

With Diess now officially installed, Volkswagen moves onto the next stage of what has already been a pretty interesting life. The workers have long since buckled up for whatever awaits on the road ahead.

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