VW's 'Mr Quality' trips over cheating scandal

VW's 'Mr Quality' in ejector seat over cheating scandal
VW's 'Mr Quality' in ejector seat over cheating scandal

Frankfurt (AFP) - All seemed well for Volkswagen's perfectionist chief executive, Martin Winterkorn, as he proudly showed off the auto giant's latest models -- including an eco-friendly 'green' range -- to German Chancellor Angela Merkel last week at Frankfurt's prestigious auto show.

Just a few days later, VW's fortunes and reputation had been turned upside down as the former paragon of German engineering found itself in the centre of a pollution cheating storm of global dimensions.

By Wednesday, the 68-year-old boss described by senior supervisory board members this year as "the best possible chief executive for Volkswagen", had gone.

"I am shocked by the events of the past few days. Above all, I am stunned that misconduct on such a scale was possible in the Volkswagen Group," said Winterkorn as he offered his resignation.

Until the scandal broke, 2015 could hardly have seemed better for the VW boss, who had a reputation for being a stickler on details.

In March, VW presented record sales and earnings for last year and was set to overtake Toyota as the world's biggest automaker, years earlier than Winterkorn had planned.

The chief executive had emerged strengthened from an ugly leadership feud with his former mentor at VW, Ferdinand Piech, the group's patriarch and grandson of the inventor of the iconic Beetle.

But on Friday, the news broke that VW had installed devices in nearly half a million diesel cars in the US that can cheat pollution tests.

Four days later, the carmaker admitted that 11 million vehicles worldwide could be affected, putting intense pressure on Winterkorn, who has since 2007 been in the driving seat of the sprawling car empire that stretched from SEAT in Spain and Skoda in the Czech Republic, to luxury sports car maker Porsche, Lamborghini in Italy and Bentley in Britain.

- 'I know every screw' -

A fastidious perfectionist with the nickname "Mr Quality", Winterkorn could reportedly drive his engineers mad by inspecting each model closely before its launch.

"I know every screw in our cars," he once boasted jokingly in an interview.

But that assertion could soon fly back in his face as the authorities search for those responsible for the fraud.

In a video statement on Tuesday, the grey-haired bespectacled manager offered his "deepest apologies" and said the manipulation had no place in a company such as Volkswagen.

Born on May 24, 1947, near Stuttgart, Winterkorn studied metallurgy and metal physics in his home town before becoming a research assistant at car parts supplier Bosch.

He then switched to the quality assurance department of Volkswagen's luxury marque Audi in 1981.

In 1993, he was appointed head of quality assurance at the parent company Volkswagen and then director of technical development of the VW brand in 1996.

Between 2000 and 2002, he served as member of the VW group board of management for technical development before returning to Audi as chief executive in 2003.

Under the wings of Ferdinand Piech, Winterkorn swiftly rose to become chief executive of the entire Volkswagen group in 2007, and drove the group from strength to strength, clocking up a record profit of 11 billion euros and sales of 202 billion euros in 2014.

In the first half of this year, it even overtook Toyota as the world leader in terms of sales, a goal Winterkorn had only set his sights for 2018.

Nevertheless, Winterkorn, the highest paid executive in Germany with a salary of 15 million euros, also has weaknesses.

- Highest-paid CEO -

VW is heavily dependent on the Chinese market, which has seen growth slow sharply recently. And the German group has failed to make more substantial inroads into the US market, where it competes with local giants such as Ford and General Motors.

Those weak points are believed to have been the reason for the falling out with his former mentor Piech, which erupted in April and eventually led to the latter's own resignation after the rest of the supervisory board rallied behind Winterkorn.

Until just last week, it had been seen as a done deal that the supervisory board would agree to extend Winterkorn's contract until the end of 2018 at a meeting scheduled for this Friday.

That meeting would turn out to be an occasion when the board would announce Winterkorn's successor.

Despite his unceremonious departure, Winterkorn said: "Volkswagen has been, is and will always be my life."