Ferdinand Karl Piëch (born 17 April 1937) is an Austrian business magnate, engineer and executive who was the chairman of the supervisory board (Aufsichtsratsvorsitzender) of Volkswagen Group until 25 April 2015.
A grandson of Ferdinand Porsche, Piëch started his career at Porsche, before leaving for Audi after an agreement that no member of the Porsche or Piëch families should be involved in the day-to-day operations of the company. Piëch eventually became the head of Audi, where he is credited with evolving and growing Audi into a competitor to equal Mercedes-Benz and BMW, thanks in part to innovative designs such as the Quattro and 100. In 1993, Piëch became the chairman and CEO of Volkswagen Group, which he is credited with turning into the large conglomerate it is today; He oversaw the purchase of Lamborghini and Bentley, as well as the founding of Bugatti Automobiles, all of which he integrated with the Volkswagen, Škoda, SEAT and Audi brands into a ladder-type structure similar to that used by Alfred Sloan at General Motors. Piëch was required to retire at age 65 per Volkswagen company policy, but he remained on its supervisory board and was involved in the company's strategic decisions until his forced resignation on 25 April 2015.
Educated as an engineer, Piëch influenced the development of numerous significant cars including the Audi Quattro and notably, the Bugatti Veyron, which as of 2012 is the fastest, most powerful and most expensive road legal automobile ever built. Due to his influence on the automobile industry, Piëch was named the Car Executive of the Century in 1999.
Piëch was born in Vienna, Austria, to Louise (née Porsche; Ferdinand's daughter) and Anton Piëch, a lawyer. He studied at the Lyceum Alpinum Zuoz and graduated from the ETH Zurich, Switzerland, in 1962, with a degree in mechanical engineering, having written a master thesis about the development of a Formula One (F1) engine. At the same time, Porsche was involved in F1 and developed an 8-cylinder engine for the Porsche 804.
From 1963 to 1971, he worked at Porsche in Stuttgart, on the development of the Porsche 906 and following models that led to the successful Porsche 917. In 1972, he moved to Audi in Ingolstadt. Starting from 1975, he was manager of technological engineering, being responsible for the concepts of the Audi 80 and Audi 100. He celebrated his 40th birthday on 17 April 1977 with a ball at which guests included Giorgetto Giugiaro and at which the staff of the Porsche Hotel presented him with an Audi 80 that was just 40 cm (16 in) long and constructed of marzipan. In 1977 he also initiated the development of a car for the World Rally Championship, resulting in the four-wheel drive Audi Quattro. The engine used in the Quattro model was a turbocharged inline-5 cylinder unit.
Piëch held a small engineering company in the time between leaving Porsche AG and joining Audi, and while there, he developed a 5 cylinder in-line diesel engine for Mercedes-Benz. He picked up the concept again after moving to Audi, because there was a market demand for engines with more than 4 cylinders. At the time, Audi (and the Audi-derived VW Passat/Santana model range) used longitudinally mounted inline engines and front wheel drive. More conservative layouts with 6 cylinders were rejected because of engineering and production costs (V6 engine) or packaging requirements (straight 6 did not fit because front wheel drive required that it be mounted in front of the axis).
In 1993, Piëch moved to Volkswagen AG, parent company of the Volkswagen Group, where he became Chairman of the Board of Management, succeeding Carl Hahn. At that time Volkswagen was only three months from bankruptcy, and he was central to orchestrating its dramatic turnaround. He retired from the Board of Management in 2002, but still serves in an advisory capacity as Chairman of the Supervisory Board. In 2000, he was named chairman of Scania AB. He retired from the management board in 2002 and was succeeded as chairman by Bernd Pischetsrieder.
While head of Volkswagen Group, Piëch was known for his aggressive moves into other markets. He drove the Volkswagen and Audi brands upmarket with great success. Piëch also pursued other marques, successfully acquiring Lamborghini for Audi, and establishing Bugatti Automobiles SAS. His purchase of British Rolls-Royce and Bentley was more controversial. After successfully buying the Crewe, England, carbuilding operation, VW was denied the use of the Rolls-Royce brand name. Piëch later claimed that he only really wanted the Bentley brand, but at the time the loss of Rolls to rival BMW was widely seen as a major failure.
What was not a failure, however, was his effort to revitalize Volkswagen in North America. Hahn's previous efforts to regain market share in the United States and Canada—which he had built up as the head of Volkswagen of America from 1958 to 1965—were unsuccessful, but Piëch helped reverse VW's fortunes by the decision to manufacture the Volkswagen New Beetle, the introduction of which in 1998 gave Volkswagen of America a much needed impulse.
Due to his continued influence in the auto industry, Automobile Magazine announced that Piëch has won their Man of the Year award for 2011.
At Porsche, Piëch triggered significant changes in the company's policy. For example, the position of drivers in race cars was moved from the left to the right, as this gives advantages on the predominantly clockwise race tracks. After making mainly small 2000 cc race cars that were supposed to be closely related to road cars, Porsche made a risky investment by unexpectedly building twenty-five 5000 cc Porsche 917, surprising the rule makers at the FIA. Even Ferrari had needed to sell his company to Fiat before making such a move. Always thinking big, Piëch started development of a 16-cylinder engine for the Can-Am series. It is probably no coincidence that his grandfather had developed a famous supercharged 16-cylinder engine for the Auto Union racing cars in the 1930s. Piëch was denied the chance to complete it, as a turbocharged version of the existing 12-cylinder was simpler, more powerful and very successful. Three decades later as CEO of Volkswagen Group, Piëch insisted on the very ambitious Bugatti Veyron, with a turbocharged W16-cylinder, 1,001 horsepower (746 kW) and 407 km/h (253 mph) top speed. Some of these figures are still not higher than those of the Porsche 917/30, but higher than most current racing cars. Piëch was also behind the Volkswagen Phaeton luxury saloon, which was intended as a rival to other German luxury cars, but the sales of the model have been disappointing.
Piëch owns a significant share of Porsche, exactly 10%. In order to prevent discussions among the many family members, a policy was established in early 1972 that no Porsche family member is allowed to be involved in the management of the company. Even company founder Ferry Porsche, Piëch's uncle, only held a seat on the supervisory board of Porsche after the company's legal form was changed from a limited partnership to a private legal company. This made Piëch move to Audi after the foundation of his engineering bureau.
Piëch has fathered 12 children with four different women, and is currently married to Ursula (Uschi) Piëch. He is dyslexic, an atheist, and has a vast car collection that includes two Bugatti Veyrons that are regularly driven by him and his wife. An aggressive and demanding manager, Piëch's prolific firing of subordinates throughout his career has been legendary in automotive circles, particularly how he engineered the ousting of former Volkswagen CEO Bernd Pischetsrieder and Porsche CEO Wendelin Wiedeking. According to Piëch, he fires any subordinate who "makes the same mistake twice". However, his efforts to similarly oust chief executive Martin Winterkorn backfired and led to the resignations of Piëch and his wife from the supervisory board.Wilhelm Exner Medal (2002).