The automobile industry has seen the many different eras of its century-long history dominated by extraordinary personalities like Henry Ford, Enzo Ferrari or Gianni Agnelli. All these men had a vice-like grip over their respective brands and to an extent the entire industry for a period stretching over decades. If there was one man who strode the narrow alleys of the automotive world like a Colossus over the last couple of decades, it was Ferdinand Piëch, the arrogant, omnipotent and ruthless former chairman of the Volkswagen juggernaut. Four years after he left his role as Chairman of the Volkswagen Group, Ferdinand Piëch has passed away “suddenly and unexpectedly”, at the age of 82.
Ostensibly one who fired anyone who made the same mistake twice, Piëch steamrolled over many a senior VW Group employee including previous CEOs Bernd Pischetsrieder and Wendelin Wiedeking. While this might definitely have made him one of the most hated people in the organisation, this attitude is what helped him turn around the fortunes of a company that was in a shambles when he took over in 1993.
When Piëch joined the company established by his distinguished grandfather Ferdinand Porsche, the Volkswagen Group was bleeding money to the tune of one billion euros a year. Naturally, he had to take unpopular decisions including pay cuts and streamlining workforce. And in the decade that followed, Piëch managed to transform the group into a 12-brand conglomerate that made everything from million-dollar hypercars to trucks and puny micro cars. He also led the group into one of the world’s largest automakers along with Toyota and General Motors.
It’s not just his contribution to the VW Group that’s been significant. The then seemingly impossible targets he set for his engineering teams have given the world landmark automobiles like the Bugatti Veyron and Chiron, the Porsche 918 hybrid hypercar and the 1.0 litre per 100km Volkswagen XL1. The technological achievements that culminated in these cars have already started to trickle down into the way both performance and fuel efficiency will be assimilated into future cars.
While audaciously pushing the limits of strategic risk, Piëch has had his share of letdowns too, including the botched takeover attempt of Rolls-Royce and the failure of Volkswagen Phaeton, which was one of his pet projects.
When he finally lost his power struggle to Martin Winterkorn in 2015 and stepped down amid the ‘dieselgate’ scandal, it literally marked the end of an era, an era that saw a visionary despot pushing his engineers and designers to achieve the impossible.