VW Patriarch's Death Puts Spotlight on Billionaire Auto Clan

(Bloomberg) -- The sudden death of Ferdinand Piech, who built Volkswagen AG into a global powerhouse, puts the spotlight on one of Europe’s wealthiest families and the challenges it faces to navigate the tectonic shifts roiling the auto industry.

Volkswagen was always hard to handle: Its home state of Lower Saxony in Germany owns 20% of the Wolfsburg-based manufacturer and worker representatives can veto factory closures. But the situation got even more complex a decade ago, when the reclusive Porsche-Piech clan — descendants of the VW Beetle’s creator, Ferdinand Porsche — gained control of a majority of the company’s voting shares.

VW Patriarch's Death Puts Spotlight on Billionaire Auto Clan

New to the responsibility involved in guiding a company with more than 600,000 employees, the family of around 80 people — contractually obliged to speak with one voice through its holding company, Porsche Automobil Holding SE — has struggled to reach decisions, often leaving Volkswagen in the lurch.

As the diesel-cheating scandal roiled the company in 2015, Wolfgang Porsche — the clan’s leading figure — did what he does every autumn and went deer hunting near his Austrian farmhouse, making almost no public comment for months on the worst crisis in the company’s history.

While Piech broke with his relatives after an acrimonious power struggle months before the diesel scandal erupted, he was the dominant figure and the only one who devoted his life to the source of the family’s wealth. His death draws attention to clan, which is led by Wolfgang Porsche and Piech’s brother Hans Michel, who are both in their late 70s.

Piech’s death “does bring the very pressing question to the table: How do the families deal with succession planning? Is the current structure best suited to govern the largest company in Europe?,” said Arndt Ellinghorst, a London-based analyst with Evercore ISI. The family setup “looks like an overly complex structure in a world that needs super-fast decision making.”

Volkswagen has sought to move past the diesel crisis, with the auto industry’s most aggressive push into electric vehicles, committing to spending 30 billion ($33 billion) in an ambitious bid to turn the niche cars into a mass-market product. At the same time, the company is carrying around excess baggage from Piech’s empire building — including units that make engines for ships and design power plants alongside a sprawling in-house component business.

The spinoff of a minority stake in heavy trucks unit Traton SE was Volkswagen’s first tangible effort at streamlining its portfolio, which includes brands that  range from exotic Bugatti and Lamborghini to upscale Porsche and Audi, to volume-focused Skoda and Seat.

The present and future of the Porsche-Piech clan lie in the hands mainly of two grandsons of Ferdinand Porsche, who have been reluctant to pass on responsibility to an increasingly disparate group of younger family members. Here’s a look at the main players.

Elder Statesmen

VW Patriarch's Death Puts Spotlight on Billionaire Auto Clan

Wolfgang Porsche, 76 | The family’s top dog is chairman of the holding company and a member of Volkswagen’s supervisory board. He orchestrated the attempt to take over the car giant before Piech turned the tables on his cousin and retained control. Wolfgang sided against Ferdinand Piech in a power struggle in April 2015, leading to the former CEO’s departure as chairman and the sale of his holdings in the company.

Hans Michel Piech, 77 | The head of the Piech branch of the family seldom plays a role in public. A trained lawyer, he has a cordial relationship with the rest of clan and serves on the supervisory boards of VW and Porsche Holding.

Next Generation

VW Patriarch's Death Puts Spotlight on Billionaire Auto Clan

Ferdinand Oliver Porsche, 58 | The son of Ferdinand Alexander, who created the 911 sports car and founded Porsche Design, is the longest serving member of the family’s fourth generation on Volkswagen’s supervisory board. He studied law and has been a supervisory board member since August 2009.

VW Patriarch's Death Puts Spotlight on Billionaire Auto Clan

Peter Daniell Porsche, 45 | The largest shareholder in the fourth generation of the clan has the most voting power, but the Waldorf educator and musical therapist has limited backing. He’s the author of several books, including one entitled “There’s More to Life Than Building Cars,” which raised eyebrows within the family. He’s on the supervisory board of Porsche Holding, taking over the seat from his father, Hans-Peter.

VW Patriarch's Death Puts Spotlight on Billionaire Auto Clan

Josef Ahorner, 59 | The son of Ferdinand Piech’s sister Louise is on the supervisory board of Porsche Holding. He studied law and helped found electronic market company Emarsys in Vienna.

VW Patriarch's Death Puts Spotlight on Billionaire Auto Clan

Stefan Piech, 48 | The son of Hans Michel is on the supervisory board of Porsche Holding. After studying in Scotland and France, he received a doctorate in media studies in Austria and runs a media company that licenses rights to Fix & Foxi cartoons and other family-oriented programming

VW Patriarch's Death Puts Spotlight on Billionaire Auto Clan

Louise Kiesling, 62 | The fashion designer, a sibling of Josef Ahorner, took a seat on the board in April 2015 when Ferdinand Piech and his wife Ursula stepped down.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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