Behold. A car is reborn.

23rd December 2015

Renewal. That is the word I heard most. I have just watched a press conference of Volkswagen’s leadership which lasted 123 minutes (accuracy is important these days) and it is clear that ‘renewal’ is now the watchword. The patient is still in intensive care, but fully expected to recover.

I do not report this with any note of cynicism. It is the job of leadership to clean up the mess, whilst simultaneously planning for a post-mess future. This is most definitely the mindset of VW’s CEO (Herr Müller) and the VW Group’s Chairman (Herr Pötsch), as I watched them speak at length. 

I maintain that what happens at VW matters for all of us. Citizens. Motorists. Business people. Marketers. How one of the world’s biggest companies could so implode, and how it might recover, is a story from which we all can learn. (My friend Fiona McAnena, at Clearhound, has written preciently on the subject.

Across two hours of intelligent and intelligible conversation, which took place on December 10th 2015, I could discern a little of what is on the mind of the world’s largest automaker, as it looks to the future. Four things stood out. 

  1. Diesel must win, because only it can deliver carbon emission requirements of 2020; 
  2. Electric motoring needs to work, but has so far been underwhelming for consumers. The Wolfburg guys are not giving up;
  3. Digital is profoundly impacting cars. It has industry leaders’ serious focus and is the subject of a recent senior ‘crossover hire’ at VW – Johann Jungwirth, a chap who has both Silicon Valley and Detroit-esque experience. A rare breed, apparently. 
  4. China dwarfs most other figures. It is Chinese growth that enables VW to announce overall growth in 2015 (a somewhat inconsequential result, given Das Skandal happened only in October). A new board member for China alone has been appointed. What goes down in Cathay will be more important than many Western markets combined. 

Some bitesize nuggets emerged which intrigued me, in various ways. I offer them in random order, as the situation resembles a jigsaw of semi-related discoveries which, one day, will weave into a narrative that actually makes full sense. 

  • A female woman has been appointed to the board of Volkswagen for the very first time. Holy god! Can that be so? How in the world has such an organisation managed to run itself without one single woman at board level? I rather consider this a scandal all on its own. Indeed, I suspect the current bilge may have been averted had it been otherwise. It is interesting (and amusing) to note Christine Hohmann-Dennhardt’s new role: Head of Integrity and Legal Affairs. 
  • It appears that the bogus software which resulted in VW cheating emissions tests has rather easy fixes in Europe, and rather complicated ones in the States. The litigious New World, it seems, will be sparring with VW many years after Europe has declared peace.
  • VW has announced a new era of humility-of-tone, which extends to it getting rid of its private Airbus A319. Oh dear. It also announced yesterday (in the timeline, this actually happened after the press conference) that the advertising slogan ‘Das Auto’ is to be withdrawn, replaced by the simple statement ‘Volkswagen’. Calling oneself ‘The Car’ is a tad exuberant, in fairness, given one is the only car found to be flouting emissions laws through criminal deception, and across continents. 
  • Herr Müller was asked if he would visit the USA on bended knee to apologise for his company’s wrongdoings. Apparently he has not travelled there since becoming CEO. He resisted the ‘bended knee’ characterisation, saying he would be going to the USA with a message of optimism. Müller asserts that this crisis is an opportunity. It is an agent of change, according to him, allowing the automaker to reimagine how it will operate and succeed. I have quite some sympathy with his diagnosis, and do not see his words as idle spin. 
  • I continue to note that VW’s field of vision stretches only as far as its customers and consumers, and has never apologised to us, regular citizens who have been breathing in its illegally manufactured fumes. I find this a glaring weakness in the senior team’s approach to the ‘crisis’. Unfortunately, no journalist asked a question even close to the subject. 
  • The VW boys took a brazen little side-swipe at their global competitors. They believe it is time for the whole auto industry to start declaring emissions statistics which are fair and realistic (not results in lab conditions which would rarely be replicated in the real world). Ballsy, eh? It is so interesting to see them coming out swinging, a slight hint of swagger under all of that humble. These guys are not planning to spend much more time on the benches, methinks. 
  • By all accounts, it appears that the underlying problem at VW was systemic, itself enabling individuals to flout the rules and the law by degree. This was described as the most ‘painful’ of all the findings. The most stubborn too, one suspects. 

In the closing minutes of the conference, Herr Müller responded to a journalist’s question, which had been couched in rather flattering terms.

“You called me a strategist”, Müller said. “That’s for you to say, not me”.

For the sake of VW’s 650,000 employees, and the quality of the world’s air, I hope his delicate response was a nod to humility, and not to self-doubt.


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