VW needs a chairman from Frankenstein’s lab

September 25, 2015

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Volkswagen’s next chief executive has a big job ahead. But it’s the carmaker’s next chairman that really matters. The legal, financial and organisational challenges looming after VW cheated on U.S. emissions tests are more than one person could handle – least of all current candidate and VW insider Hans Dieter Poetsch. So here are five people Wolfsburg’s skilled engineers must wish they could weld together in a classic auto “cut and shut”.

The green touch. Having helped car owners pump noxious fumes into American airspace, VW needs an affable ambassador embodying a credible commitment to sustainability, with the ability to schmooze regulators. BMW already snatched former German minister and green politician Joschka Fischer. The inconvenient truth is that Al Gore, former U.S. vice president, is the best man for the job.

The cost-cutter. Profitability at VW’s volume brand is woefully low. Its wage bill is as bloated as its capital expenditure. American billionaire Wilbur Ross, well versed in restructured failing industrials, would be a good candidate to oversee the trimming. True, he is little known in VW’s home country. But the carmaker’s 271,000 German workers would get to know him fairly quickly as 25 percent of them got the sack.

The union darling. Unions have disproportionate influence at VW and need to be kept happy. A dash of acting chairman Berthold Huber, a career unionist, might be useful. But Andrea Nahles, Germany’s social democratic labour minister, is a better choice. She’s young and – in what would be a welcome tilt towards a more balanced board – a woman.

The petrolhead. A non-car loving VW chairman risks being bamboozled by an army of all-mighty engineers. VW might do worse than poach some component parts from Jeremy Clarkson, now at Amazon. True, the former presenter of UK car programme “Top Gear” occasionally gets worked up about “humourless Volkswagen”. But he is car-obsessed. And, as proved after being sacked for punching a producer, he takes no prisoners.

The corporate reformer. Volkswagen’s flawed governance needs to be sorted. Not easy, but Tom Enders would manage. He has turned Airbus, paralysed by its state shareholders, into an almost normal company. Siphon off his restructuring nous, and the resulting Frankenchairman – let’s name this creature Al Wilbur Tom Nahles-Clarkson – might just perform the same magic in Wolfsburg.

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