Wolfgang Porsche interview: The legend must be maintained

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TALK FROM THE TOP

His surname is iconic in automotive circles, yet Wolfgang Porsche admits: “At first, I couldn’t tolerate riding in a car. As a kid in the back seat, I would get sick.”

In a rare interview, Wolfgang Porsche, the spokesman for the influential Porsche-Piech family that controls Volkswagen Group, talked about VW’s past and future leadership and the future of the Porsche brand.

Porsche, who is the grandson of VW Beetle designer Ferdinand Porsche and a cousin of former VW Chairman of Ferdinand Piech, whom he helped to oust in a power struggle for control of VW, fielded questions from Automobilwoche, a sister publication of Automotive News Europe, at Schuettgut, the family’s estate in Austria. Porsche turned 75 on Thursday.

No fence. No video cameras. Only a blue Porsche 911 in front of the door tells you something about the resident of this 600-year-old farmhouse on an Austrian hillside. Just a stone’s throw away, cable cars are floating uphill. Traffic hums along on the national highway below. “Come right in — it’s cold out,” Wolfgang Porsche said. The Porsche clan has owned Schuettgut in Zell am See since 1941. Wolfgang Porsche acquired it from his family in 2004. A wood-paneled corridor leads into a comfortable living room past deer antlers and cowbells. The housekeeper serves coffee and homemade pastries. The house is the center of Wolfgang Porsche’s life. He spends time here between supervisory board meetings and business appointments. The family’s legendary crisis meeting took place here in 1972. It culminated in the family’s withdrawal from business operations at Porsche. Ferdinand Piech made his legendary declaration here: “You are domestic pigs. I’m the wild boar.”

Wolfgang Porsche in front of a Porsche 356 B at the family villa in Stuttgart.

Mr. Porsche, what does Schuettgut mean to you?

Schuettgut is my home. I was actually born in Stuttgart, but we moved shortly after my birth. I spent part of my childhood here, playing hide-and-seek with my brothers and cousins in the meadows and by the stream. It was wonderful. When my father was dying, he arranged everything — except what to do with the house. There were strange proposals from the family to turn Schuettgut into a guest house for the family or a similar facility. I couldn’t bear to think about that. I finally took it over so it could be maintained as a family compound. I also knew how much my father loved Schuettgut.

When was the first time that you were consciously aware that Porsches are special automobiles?

You won’t believe this. At first, I couldn’t tolerate riding in a car. As a kid in the back seat, I would get sick when we drove on the winding mountain roads around Zell am See. That may be why I got behind the wheel quite early. When we moved back to Stuttgart, I had permission to pull our Porsche 356 in and out of the parking space in front of the garage on our property on Feuerbacher Weg. Even though I could barely see over the steering wheel, I really enjoyed my first efforts at driving.

People frequently talk about the Porsche legend. How would you define it?

Ah, that is a very complicated mosaic. Porsches were always exclusive, even though they were suited to everyday use. This expressed a down-to-earth quality that our customers appreciate along with their other characteristics. They don’t merely want to go from A to B. They don’t just love these sports cars. They live and breathe them. Even Porsche employees are proud to work for this company. This may have something to do with the fact that, as a family, we stand for a certain humility and mutual considerateness within the company. Along with motorsport successes, all this evidently gives the brand a special charisma.

How do people react when you mention your name on one of your many trips?

Quite normally, as a rule. I can only remember one funny episode. It occurred at the Hotel Imperial in Vienna. It was a while ago. When I told her my name, the lady at the front desk said: “I don’t need to know what kind of car you drive. I want to know what your name is.”

Would you ever have thought Porsche AG would do so well after its failed takeover of VW in 2009?

Let me interrupt on that point. At 52.2 percent, Porsche SE today holds the majority of Volkswagen AG’s common stocks. Since 2012, Porsche AG has been part of the Volkswagen Group and has continued to develop positively under its umbrella. Porsche benefits from synergies with the group’s other brands. In hindsight, Wendelin Wiedeking’s idea of taking a stake in Volkswagen was absolutely correct, even if a number of things could’ve been done differently. His remark that there could be no sacred cows in Wolfsburg and that everything had to be continually questioned was certainly not helpful. 

What is left of the structures that Wiedeking denounced at Volkswagen?

The Volkswagen Group and especially the Volkswagen brand have basically changed a great deal in recent years. Mr. Mueller and the entire Volkswagen board of management moved in the right direction in many areas. The group figures that were just presented for 2017 speak for themselves. I have repeatedly pointed out that I fundamentally have no problem with employee co-determination in German companies. But I’m stating very clearly that the management board is mainly responsible for a company’s decisions. Otherwise, the tail is wagging the dog. Only financially healthy companies are good, reliable employers.

Wolfgang Porsche opens the door to the one-time stable not far from the main building. It has the subtle scent of a car workshop, even though everything is squeaky-clean. Three red Porsche tractors stand at the right, with a dark green Porsche 356 Carrera 2, manufactured in 1963, out in front. He regularly uses the car to complete the Ennstal-Classic through the Austrian Alps. The 356 is one of Wolfgang Porsche’s favorite cars. Pennants and plaques from Porsche clubs around the world sit in a display case. Advertising posters for the 911 hang on the wall. The pieces could be used to open a museum. But Wolfgang Porsche thinks it important for most of the vehicles to be driven regularly. Aside from rarities like a Kuebelwagen, the collection includes new models like a Panamera plug-in hybrid, two 918 Spyders and a 911 Turbo S from the Exclusive Series limited edition.

How can the VW Group regain the trust that was lost in the diesel crisis? 

Our customers are the most important part, which is why we have to do everything we can to regain their trust. I am mainly arguing for greater humility as well. Size alone has no intrinsic value. 

Last year, former VW Group CEO Matthias Mueller earned more than 10 million euros. Is that being humble?

The debate over executive salaries is very German. You hardly see it in other countries. If you are successful here, people look askance at you. We have reformed salaries on the supervisory board. We are now oriented to the future and not the past. We have geared the compensation system to other industries and now are in midrange on management board salaries.

You are defending Mueller. Why did he have to leave early?

Matthias Mueller took over as chief executive at a very difficult time for Volkswagen. With the group strategy “Together 2025,” he successfully advanced the company’s strategic orientation. The quite good financial results for 2017 are proof that he adopted the right measures. He deserves our thanks for that.

What does Herbert Diess have to do better at the head of the company?

It is not a matter of better or worse but rather a faster pace and a greater use of synergies. Mr. Diess has presented a comprehensive restructuring of the VW Group to do this. Now he must carry it out.

Can you understand the annoyance of drivers of diesel cars who now have to worry about driving bans?

Of course. That’s why we’ve done everything we can to prevent large-scale driving bans. There are smarter options for improving the air in our inner cities. Politicians and manufacturers should pull together. Sometimes I ask myself whether people realize how many German jobs depend on the auto industry.

Are you still in contact with Martin Winterkorn?

We talk on the phone from time to time. I write to him on his birthday and at Christmas. I think that’s important. I will never understand how my cousin could drop someone like that, someone who served him loyally for 35 years, without speaking with him candidly.

Porsche said he hasn’t spoken with Ferdinand Piech (left) since Piech sold his shares in the automaker, “but I did invite him to my 75th birthday party.”

You are alluding to the famous sentence, “I am keeping my distance from Winterkorn.”

Ferdinand Piech put his indisputably significant lifework at risk when he said that. He was out of line. I am sure there would have been other ways to solve his differences of opinion with Mr. Winterkorn.

Have you two spoken since Piech’s withdrawal from all his posts and the sale of his shares in the company?

No, we have very little contact. But I did invite him to my 75th birthday party.

A small, whitewashed chapel stands just a few meters from Schuettgut. Porsche goes over to it, opens the door and squints into the sun, which reveals itself between the clouds for a brief moment. A fresh bouquet of flowers, six candles and a memorial plaque under a cross. “The great engineer and inventor Ferdinand Porsche rests here.” His other family members are interred here as well. They include his wife, Aloisia; their daughter Louise; and her daughter, also named Louise; along with his son Ferry and his wife, Dorothea; and their son Ferdinand Alexander. “This chapel is the core of our tradition,” Porsche said. It is one reason he acquired the estate from his relatives in 2004. The family is at the center, and the world of entrepreneur Wolfgang Porsche revolves around it. The very thought of tourists or seminar guests trampling the fields at Schuettgut is unbearable to him.

The fourth generation of the family is now moving on to the supervisory board of Porsche SE. How important is this to you?

I can imagine resentments between the family branches disappearing and agreements being easier to reach. We are indeed a large family, but it is certainly not appropriate for everyone to be on the various supervisory board committees. In addition, many are fully established in their careers. I am glad we’ve found three suitable candidates: Josef Ahorner, Stefan Piëch and Peter Daniell Porsche. We have also been able to bring well-known experts from the legal and financial fields on board. 

Porsche has seen huge growth in recent years. Are you worried about the loss of the company’s identity? 

We do have to make sure that the Porsche legend is maintained. A few years ago, Porsche had 15,000 employees, and now the number has risen to 30,000. They must all continue to be true Porsche people, but that is going to be more and more difficult. The company needs the VW Group for cooperation in development and production. But it must maintain a certain independence as well. Porsche already sells more than 250,000 cars a year. It is crucial to maintain exclusivity.

Porsche is maintaining its connection to motorsports in Formula E through the Mission E, Porsche’s first electric sports car.

Porsche is building the Mission E, its first electric sports car. Is this the right decision?

My grandfather built an electric car, the Lohner Semper Vivus, back in 1899, so the Mission E stands for the audacity that is a Porsche tradition. There have been many voices saying that an expansion of the Stuttgart facilities would not be worth the effort. It certainly was not the most affordable option. But it was important for our electric car to come from Stuttgart. Employees are doing without part of their pay increase for this and paying the money into a fund for the future. To me, that shows the spirit that lives on in the company.

Motorsports has always been an important part of the history of Porsche. Is Formula E sufficient for the future?

Formula E is certainly a good way to promote electric mobility. And the competition with Audi doesn’t hurt. But I will be back at Le Mans again this year, even though Porsche no longer competes in the LMP1 class. I think one important area is customer racing, which we intend to strengthen. Porsche is also competing with a record number of vehicles in the GT Series. The field won’t be left to Ferraris and other competitors. 

The auto industry is in the throes of rapid change. Is there an issue that is giving you a hard time?

My difficulty is less with technological change and more with bureaucratic overregulation. We once had a Porsche legal department with five attorneys. Now we have more than 30. Expertise from outside the company is also needed for many decisions. The same applies to labor laws. It is absurd when an intern is working on an exciting topic and wants to complete it, but he has to go home because he has already used up his budgeted hours. If we want to maintain our prosperity in the long run, we especially need our employees’ initiative and commitment. We must promote these qualities, not hinder them.

You are the spokesman for the family and a unifying force at Porsche. Who should take on your role at some point?

I believe that I should help monitor the transformation that is underway. We will see how long I can persevere from a health standpoint. If you were to ask me about a candidate to be my successor, I would say Ferdinand Oliver Porsche at this point. For several years, he has been a member of the supervisory board at VW and Audi as well as Porsche AG and Porsche SE. He knows these companies very well. I would trust him in this role completely. But our family has not yet decided on a succession proposal.

At the end of the interview, Porsche extends an invitation to visit Prielau Castle nearby. Like the mountain railways on the Schmittenhöhe, the boats on Lake Zell and a small airport, it is one of the family’s properties in the Pinzgau region. The mansion sleeps 22; the Vienna playwright Hugo von Hofmannsthal once lived there. Each room has been renovated with great care, and the entire castle is available for rent, the hotel manager says. Well-known industrial families have spent their vacations here. Wolfgang Porsche acquired the rustic estate, including a church, in 1981, and lived here himself for several years. He likes to dine in the restaurant, where Andreas Mayer, a student of Eckart Witzigmann, runs the kitchen. For all this, Wolfgang Porsche radiates a warmhearted modesty that could hardly be in greater contrast to the family’s wealth. But no one should mistake this as weakness. When he discovered that four lightbulbs were missing from a ceiling light fixture, his response was fast and clear: “Replace immediately.”

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