• For many, he is the Car Executive of the Century.
  • What singles him out is competence, genius, devotion, persistence and passion.
  • His technical talent gave him his worldwide reputation as an outstanding car developer and visionary.
  • He always set his sights high and never failed to see things through.
  • He always attached great importance to the smallest details of every new development.
  • He is the kingmaker among German car manufacturers.
  • VW’s success story is chiefly attributable to the technical know-how of Ferdinand Piech.
  • Ferdinand Piech’s achievements in Wolfsburg are tremendous.
  • He turned an ailing group into a global player.

Who heaps all this praise on the humble head Ferdinand Piech, chairman of the supervisory board of the Volkswagen Group? Why, the Volkswagen Group does. Specifically, the man who signs off on this treacly treatise is Andreas Meurer, head of group communications for the VW Group.

On 16 April, on the eve of the great man’s 70th birthday, Andreas had to whack out a press release. We might imagine that Piech knew nothing about the starry-eyed admiration that arose spontaneously within his company. We might.

To be fair, and the temptation to be fair is not overwhelming, VW was able to ascribe the bits about competence and genius, and the other bit about car executive of the century to the Manager Magazin Hall of Fame citation. Otherwise there is no attribution. It is all apparently home-grown observation.

Two days elapse and then yesterday (Thursday 19 April) is AGM day when Piech gets to have another birthday treat. Lined up before him are 4,000 shareholders and some shareholder action groups who think that he has been riding roughshod over the basic principles of good corporate governance. How can he be chairman of VW and a board member at Porsche when the two compete ferociously in the market place for sales of Porsche Cayenne on the one hand, and VW Touareg and Audi Q7 on the other?

And they tell him straight:  “We are not pleased with the corporate governance at Volkswagen because of the conflict of interest,” said Hansgeorg Martius, a board member of SDK shareholder group.

“We will vote against the re-election of Mr.Piech. Due to his conflict of interest, Mr.Piech’s continued membership on the supervisory board is not in the interests of Volkswagen,” said that leading dissident shareholder, Hans-Christoph Hirt, of the UK’s Hermes pension fund.

Piech just stayed quiet. The criticism was tepid compared with last year when Piech was full-on at war with Berndt Pischetsrieder, then chairman of the VW management board. Why should he take notice of the shareholders when he had in his pocket more than half the voting rights – the 30.9% owned by Porsche and the State of Lower Saxony shares?

The most vigorous attempt to discredit him was rehearsal of the ‘mysterious case of the five-year pay-packet’.

Pischetsrieder was sacked in November of last year, six months after being reappointed as chief executive for a five year term.

Get this: Piech admitted making a mistake in appointing Pischetsrieder rather than the man who is now in charge, Martin Winterkorn: “At the time I hesitated to name someone who was professionally and personally close to me. I recognised too late in November that I made the wrong decision,” he told shareholders.

One shareholder quite reasonably wanted to know who was paying for the mistake. Pischetsrieder presumably was given a pay-off for the four and a half years of unexpired service contract?

No. Pischetsrieder was still working for the group.

How much was he getting and what did he do for the money?

His terms are as they were when he was appointed chairman of the management board and those numbers are in the accounts, Piech said.

As to what he did for the money, there was no answer. That’s Piech style for you. If you don’t like the question don’t answer it. If you run an arcane AGM that runs non-stop from breakfast to tea-time, no-one is going to argue. It’s human nature to give up the fight when the belly is empty.

It’s now exactly 12 hours on from the start of the AGM, and news arrives that for Piech, the day has ended satisfactorily and exactly on plan. The press release reads:

Hamburg, April 19, 2007. Following the Annual General Meeting, the Supervisory Board of Volkswagen AG unanimously elected Prof. Dr. h.c. Ferdinand K. Piëch as Chairman of the Supervisory Board for a further five years.

What singles him out is competence, genius, devotion, persistence, passion – and his ability to stay awake way past his bedtime.

Rob Golding