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The man who drives Volkswagen into the electric age

Now that Volkswagen, under the impetus of CEO Herbert Diess, is fully playing the map of the electric offensive, Europe’s largest car manufacturer is switching from pariah to stock exchange favorite.

“Attention: this is not a car presentation.” With that mysterious tweet, Volkswagen CEO Herbert Diess teased his followers in the last straight line to the reveal of the German carmaker’s electric offensive on Monday.

Over the next nine years, six new battery factories will have to be built in Europe alone to meet the growing need for batteries for Volkswagen’s e-cars. According to experts, this is the signal that VW is taking the transition to electric very seriously. All the more so because there is also an offensive for more charging infrastructure, together with the oil companies BP and Enel, among others.

Diess promises that VW will sell more than 1 million hybrid or all-electric cars this year. That’s about 10 percent of annual sales. That million cars are roughly evenly split between plug-in hybrids and all-electric cars.

On the Frankfurt stock exchange, the VW share experienced its biggest day climb since 2008 on Tuesday. It has been since the diesel scandal in 2015 that the price was so high. Since November, the price has shot up almost 70 percent.

It seems that Diess, brought in in 2015, is living up to expectations. The Austrian, who grew up in Munich, worked for a long time at competitor BMW and moved to Wolfsburg, VW’s home, in 2015. Initially, Diess became responsible for the Volkswagen brand.

When CEO Martin Winterkorn had to leave a few months later in the aftermath of the diesel gate scandal, Diess hoped to be promoted. But the CEO post went to then Porsche boss Matthias Müller. In 2018, Diess succeeded that intermediate pope.

Clean ship

As the new CEO, Diess wanted to clean up the business with a clear vision. “Volkswagen needs to change completely,” he wrote on his LinkedIn page at the end of last year, “from a collection of valuable brands and fascinating combustion engines (…) to a digital company that reliably serves millions of mobile devices worldwide.”

Of all the CEOs of German automakers, Diess is best aware that in the electric age the car manufacturers are primarily software and battery manufacturers. And that the car is nothing more than a shell.

Internally, Diess fought the toughest battle to convince the shareholders, the board of directors and the unions of the importance of the switch from the combustion engine to e-engines.

It was not easy to get the bulky tanker in the right direction. Diess came up with his un-German direct style – the Süddeutsche Zeitung once described him as ‘hochtourigen Motorrad-Rocker’, freely translated the hell’s angel among the German car managers’ – regularly clashed with the trade unions, especially the powerful trade unionist on the board of directors: Bernd Osterloh.

Osterloh, often seen as the real head of the company, has worked for VW for over 40 years. Since 2005 he has led the trade union delegation on the board of directors. Diess accused the trade unionist of taking the company hostage with his blocking policy and preventing important changes.

Back cover

This week, Diess officially started the hunt for Tesla, although Wolfsburg still has to shift a few gears higher to get Musk and co. to keep up. Last year, Volkswagen sold 231,000 fully electric cars. This year there should be half a million. Tesla, for its part, sold nearly 510,000 fully electric cars last year. This year, Musk is counting on at least 1 million Teslas.

Herbert Diess in a nutshell

Diess promises that VW will sell more than 1 million hybrid or all-electric cars this year. That is about 10 percent of the annual volume.

Internally, Diess fought the toughest battle to convince the board of directors, the unions and the employees of the switch from the combustion engine to the electric motor.

The German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung once described Diess as ‘hochtourigen Motorrad-Rocker’, freely translated the hell’s angel among the German car managers’.

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