Innovative ideas and technologies are the basis for the Volkswagen Group’s growth and business success. “Driving ideas” is the motto dominating the philosophy and actions of Europe’s largest automaker, as can be seen from the way Prof. Dr. Martin Winterkorn, Chairman of the Board of Management, spends his days. The focus is not just on what’s technologically possible – an innovation is only truly good if it generates real added value for the customer and can be implemented in harmony with the environment.
DECEMBER 2008 Dresden Trade Fair, Hall No. 1, six days before Christmas: Martin Winterkorn has rolled onto the stage in a white Golf VI. He is surrounded by 1,800 executives from Volkswagen locations all round the world, who have come to discuss the future of the Volkswagen brand with the Board of Management. It is one of Winterkorn’s last major engagements in what has been a turbulent year. In his first brief discussion with the moderator, he sums up the current situation without beating about the bush: “Our sector is experiencing the most severe crisis that I personally have seen in my 30 years in the automotive industry. We have a brutal year ahead of us.” Costs must be cut and processes streamlined. “There is no room any more for things that are merely ‘nice to have’”, he says, setting the tone for the management meeting.
And nevertheless he manages to generate a spirit of optimism in the hall, a feeling that when the going gets tough, the tough get going. If the Chairman of the Board of Management were to take off his dark blue jacket on stage, no one would be surprised if he had rolled-up shirtsleeves underneath. At the end of the day, Winterkorn will fire on his team with the rallying cry of “let’s do it”. And every manager in the hall will go along with him, because he looks and sounds as if he believes it, too.
Winterkorn’s determination can also be seen from the fact that he is maintaining the Group’s strategy for the period up to 2018, which was launched last year at the same venue, “with no ifs and buts”. “Our goals are unchanged”, he says – which means they remain ambitious: by 2018, the Group aims to be the number one worldwide in terms of unit sales, profit, quality and employer image. The CEO is convinced that “we’ve got what it takes to emerge stronger than before from the crisis, because we have a global presence with strong brands and the right vehicles”.
Left: German Chancellor Angela Merkel talks to employees at Volkswagen do Brasil in Anchieta. Together with Martin Winterkorn, she opened the new “Virtual Reality Center” there, the first development center of its kind in South America.
SPRING 2008 Martin Winterkorn is spending a lot of his time at the moment in the Design Center, part of the manufacturing facility in Wolfsburg, Germany. It is the Company’s creative nerve center, where Chief Designer Walter De Silva gives Group brands their unmistakable look. The German engineer and the high-octane Italian designer get on well with each other; they already formed a winning team at Audi. They are now repeating this success with vehicles such as the Golf VI, due to be launched in a couple of months. Their conversations are a lively mixture of German, English and Italian – but they speak a common language when it comes to the design for the new edition of this iconic Volkswagen. “The uncluttered, clear, precise design will be a hard act for our competitors to follow”, is how Winterkorn describes the “future face of the Volkswagen brand”. “Simplicity and character, esthetics and precision – these are Volkswagen’s DNA”, says De Silva, who calls the new Golf his “signature piece for Volkswagen”. A few months later, when the vehicle is unveiled in Iceland, the assembled press representatives agree. “Timeless design”, says “Auto Zeitung”, while “Auto Bild” says the car is “fresher, more technical and more desirable than its predecessor”.
MID-MAY 2008 The Gol – tailored specifically to the South American market, where it has sold millions of units – is another model. In June 2008, the Brazilian president visits São Paulo for the presentation of the fifth generation of the car, which has been manufactured in the country since 1983. A few weeks before, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Martin Winterkorn also meet up there for the inauguration of the “Virtual Reality Center”, the first development center of its kind in South America. The Chancellor, who has a doctorate in physics, and the metallurgist discuss the finer points of how 3D technologies are used in automotive design. “This center is an investment in South America, one of the markets of the future, and represents a new chapter in Volkswagen’s Brazilian-German success story”, says Winterkorn. A short time later he talks with workers at the Brazilian factories in a number of works meetings. The employees appreciate the gesture – never before has a CEO taken this much time for them. Winterkorn receives particularly warm applause when he underlines the similarities between the two countries: “We are both passionate about automobiles. And we’re both strong soccer nations.”
END OF MAY 2008 Two weeks later the Volkswagen Group CEO himself dons a soccer jersey – as the goalkeeper in a charity match between the celebrity team “Wolfsburg United” and former professionals such as world champions Guido Buchwald and Fredi Bobic. Football fan Winterkorn, who nowadays hardly misses a home game for local soccer team VfL Wolfsburg, loses the match in the Volkswagen Arena, letting in nine goals. Nevertheless, the 8,500-strong crowd has a good time, as can be seen from their donations: helpers collect €117,000 during the match to help street children projects in South Africa and Mexico. “For us, business success and social responsibility go hand in hand”, says Winterkorn after the match. “Volkswagen aims to be a good, honest and reliable partner for people.” Including those who may never be able to afford a Volkswagen.
Left: The CEO himself puts on his boots for a benefit match in the Volkswagen Arena. The proceeds of the game go to help street children projects in South Africa and Mexico.
MID-JUNE 2008 Although Martin Winterkorn loves football, his passion for cars is even stronger. This can clearly be seen from the 2008 Research Drive, held at the Volkswagen test grounds in Ehra-Lessien near Wolfsburg. Every year, Group researchers present their ideas for the automotive world of the future at the circuit – and an inquisitive CEO grills them on every last detail. “We invest approximately €5 billion a year in research and development – which for me are the heart and brains of the Group. This is where we turn futuristic ideas into added value for our customers”, says Winterkorn. The Group’s innovative ability can clearly be seen from visionary safety features such as the “pyrobrake” – a pyrotechnically actuated braking system. Other examples are pioneering driver assistance systems, such as the Passat CC’s Adaptive Chassis Control, or the Adaptive Cruise Control that is now also being used in the new Golf to ensure greater safety and comfort.
However, the focus of research is on ecological issues. The Group is pursuing a two-pronged strategy here. On the one hand it is optimizing combustion engines and downsizing, even in the case of SUVs and large saloons, which in future will also use supercharged four-cylinder engines. On the other, Volkswagen is working on alternative drive technologies, especially for the “New Small Family”, the Group’s key strategic vehicle project. “It is clear that the future belongs to electric drives”, says Winterkorn with conviction, “but there are many challenges that still need to be solved before we get there: the biggest stumbling block is the battery technology”. Winterkorn also wants the Group to drive innovations in other forward-looking areas such as lightweight construction, gas-powered vehicles, or second-generation biofuels. There’s no doubt about it: putting the pedal to the metal. These are challenging times for R&D staff – but good times as well.