Volkswagen CEO Herbert Diess in Wolfsburg, Germany, October 24 2019. Picture: REUTERS/FABIAN BIMMER
Volkswagen CEO Herbert Diess in Wolfsburg, Germany, October 24 2019. Picture: REUTERS/FABIAN BIMMER

Frankfurt — Volkswagen (VW), the world’s largest vehicle maker by sales, risked a leadership crisis on Tuesday after CEO Herbert Diess forced a vote of confidence in his reform efforts by asking for an early contract extension.

The multi-brand car and truck maker is convening its executive committee to discuss Diess’s demand for the contract extension, more than a year before his term comes to an end in 2023, three sources said on Monday.

The Austrian manager, who defected from BMW in 2015, and helped VW reform after its diesel scandal with a €7 bn electric vehicle (EV) investment plan, has grown frustrated with German labour leaders blocking cost cuts.

The supervisory board’s executive committee, which is headed by VW chair Hans Dieter Pötsch, and includes Wolfgang Porsche and Hans Michel Piech, members of the carmaker’s owning families, as well as labour boss Bernd Osterloh, is due to meet on Tuesday, the three sources said.

VW declined to comment.

The meeting comes on the same day that Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk is due to receive the Axel Springer award for his achievements in the area of engineering in Berlin, after the EV maker decided to build a factory on the outskirts of the German capital.

Analysts said the VW committee meeting highlighted the difficulties in reforming a carmaker in which labour representatives control half the seats on the board of directors and local politicians have a 20% voting stake, allowing them to vote down significant strategic reform proposals.

“The company has some of the most amazing and most global brands, it has the scale to deploy any technology and the innovation power to be an early mover. What it appears to be lacking is the right corporate governance,” Bernstein automotive analyst Arndt Ellinghorst said in a note late on Monday.

“There should be no illusion, this transformation will always trigger conflicts. Whether there is a new CEO or not, the questions will remain the same, and any VW CEO will need the full backing from VW’s largest shareholders, the Porsche families.”

VW is worth €77.2bn ($92bn), far below rival Toyota, which enjoys a $155.7bn valuation, and Tesla’s $555bn.

And that’s despite VW selling 10.96-million vehicles in 2019 — the most by any carmaker in the world — while Toyota came in second with 10.74-million. Tesla sold only 367,500 cars in the same period.

Analysts say that’s because VW is less efficient and has higher costs. The VW Group had 671,205 employees at the end of 2019, well above the 359,542 staff at Toyota at the end of its fiscal year, and the 48,016 workers at Tesla last year.

Forcing the issue

German companies customarily deliberate contract extensions for management board members only a year ahead of expiration. Diess, whose contract expires in 2023, however, forced the issue after labour leader Bernd Osterloh stifled his reform efforts.

These included installing two allies Arno Antlitz as CFO and Thomas Schmall as chief procurement officer on the management board, the three sources said.

Rather than approving each individual appointment, the labour leaders insist on approving a “package solution” which is “harmonious”, two people familiar with the deliberations said.

Osterloh is also said to oppose an early contract extension for Diess, one of the three sources said.

In a post on LinkedIn this week, Osterloh said there was no fight about management appointments because no committee on the supervisory board had been formally consulted about the issue.

Diess, for his part, voiced his frustration in a column in the German daily Handelsblatt published on Friday.

“When I took office in Wolfsburg, I had firmly resolved to change the VW system. This meant breaking up old, encrusted structures and making the company more agile and modern,” he said. “Together with many companions with the same level of motivation, I succeeded in doing this in many places, but not in some, especially not yet at our corporate headquarters in Wolfsburg.”


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