Ferdinand Piech, the former chairman and CEO who transformed Volkswagen into one of the world’s biggest automakers and added Porsche to its holdings, has died. He was 82.
He died Sunday at a hospital in Bavaria, Germany, according to Bild newspaper.
The grandson of Ferdinand Porsche, who founded the manufacturer of the 911 sports car, became Volkswagen’s CEO in 1993, when the Wolfsburg, Germany-based company was mired in losses. Plagued with quality problems and high costs, Volkswagen became profitable, producing better vehicles without large-scale job cuts, while Piech won the allegiance of unions and shareholders alike. He continued to guide strategy after becoming supervisory board chairman in 2002.
Piech’s crowning achievement at VW was the acquisition of the Porsche SE auto brand in 2012. The purchase was the final stage in turning the tables on his cousin, Wolfgang Porsche, who had pushed the Stuttgart, Germany-based sports-car producer to bid for VW four years earlier. Piech sided with the state of Lower Saxony, which owns a blocking stake in VW, to rebuff Porsche SE’s offer just as the suitor’s debt was surging from the takeover effort.
The combination of Volkswagen and Porsche united manufacturers that trace their roots to Piech’s grandfather, who developed the original VW Beetle car under a contract with Germany’s Nazi regime in 1934.
Under Piech, Volkswagen pushed into high-end autos with the purchase of the Bentley and Bugatti nameplates. At the same time, he tightened VW’s integration of the mass-market Seat and Skoda brands. By the end of 2012, Volkswagen either owned outright or held controlling stakes in 12 vehicle brands, including supercar producer Lamborghini, heavy-truck makers MAN and Scania and motorcycle maker Ducati.
His obsession with cars — and the desire to make the best possible ones, regardless of price — also cost VW a lot of money. With the flopped Phaeton sedan, the Bugatti Veyron supercar and Audi’s A2 hatchback, the Volkswagen group accounts for three out of the 10 biggest money-losers in modern automotive history, according to estimates from Max Warburton, an analyst for Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. That’s the worst track record in the industry.
Enjoying a cult-like following within the company, Piech often got his way when he lost confidence in managers, forcing out a series of executives, including his hand-picked successor as CEO, Bernd Pischetsrieder, in 2006. The supervisory board’s leadership committee surprisingly defied him in April 2015 by saying it would vote to extend Martin Winterkorn’s contract as CEO, against Piech’s wishes. Piech resigned as chairman later that month.
“If I want to achieve something, I approach the problem and push it through without realizing what’s happening around me,” he wrote in his 2002 autobiography. “My desire for harmony is limited.”
Ferdinand Karl Piech was born on April 17, 1937, in Vienna. His father, Anton, was a lawyer, and his mother, Louise, was the daughter of Ferdinand Porsche. The third of four children, Ferdinand Piech had two brothers and a sister.
After attending the Swiss boarding school Lyceum Alpinum Zuoz, near St. Moritz, from 1952 until 1958, he studied engineering at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. In 1963, Piech went to work for his uncle Ferry at Porsche in Stuttgart, where he later became a technical manager.
Piech joined Volkswagen in 1972, when he moved to Audi from Porsche after the family decided to end its active role in the sports-car maker’s operations. At Audi, he pushed the development of the Quattro all-wheel-drive system, helping establish the brand as an innovator and enabling it to overtake Daimler AG’s Mercedes-Benz in global luxury-car sales in 2011.
Piech ensured that his legacy will live on at Volkswagen when he arranged for his wife Ursula, a former kindergarten teacher and governess for his family during the 1980s, to be appointed to VW’s supervisory board in 2012. She also joined Audi’s board the following year.
He had five children with his first wife, the former Corina von Planta; two from his relationship with Marlene Porsche, the former wife of his cousin Gerhard Porsche; three with Ursula Piech; and two other children.