The abrupt resignation this afternoon of VW’s chairman and CEO, Martin Winterkorn, will always remembered as one of the most bizarre falls from grace by a top executive in all automotive history.
It is probable that Winterkorn has no idea who in his vast organisation first devised the rule-defeating diesel pollution technology that has mired the mammoth VW Group in the most serious scandal for many decades, and who decided to use it in production cars. He may not find that out for many weeks.
Yet such are the pressures on the managements of modern publicly-listed multinationals that it was clear as soon as the seriousness of the scandal emerged that someone right at the top would have to take an early fall. And as was clear from Winterkorn’s expression once he started appearing on TV news programmes, he knew that he was the man in the hot seat.
Until three days ago, Friday's well-flagged meeting of Volkswagen’s all-powerful supervisory board had been expected to extend Winterkorn’s rein at the top of Europe’s biggest car company, an implicit reward for the fact that he has built VW into a nine million-sales-a-year car group.
But after the revelations an extraordinary meeting was hurriedly arranged for today, to agree the chairman’s instant departure. Friday's session, still in the diaries, will focus on begining the business, as they term it, of rebuilding trust. It will be a long job.
I’ve met Winterkorn a number of times, and however ironic it now sounds, I can’t help thinking that his oft-demonstrated ability as an engineer with a clear understanding (until today) of what customers want from a Volkswagen, might have been well employed in devising and orchestrating the many remedies that will be needed to clean up this horrendous mess.
Meeting again on Friday to discuss Winterkorn's successor sounds like a distinctly leisurely response to a corporate earthquake. But VW does most of its management behind the scenes, and much midnight oil is certain be burned over the next two days.
Some of it, you can bet, will be burned by VW’s recently-departed patriarch, Ferdinand Piech, who three months months ago lost a key boardroom battle with Winterkorn and left the company. But he remains a member of the ruling family and a man of huge influence inside VW.
Perhaps, after all, Piech's race is not completely run.
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