The Porsche family scion, who has dominated Volkswagen for decades, tried to oust the chief executive, Martin Winterkorn, but the board turned against him.
FRANKFURT, Germany — Ferdinand Piech, the Porsche family scion who has dominated Volkswagen for more than two decades, stepped down as chairman of the automaker’s supervisory board, the company said Saturday, in what appeared to be a stunning defeat for a manager used to getting his way.
Piech, 78, recently sought to force out Martin Winterkorn, a onetime protégé, as Volkswagen’s chief executive. But the move backfired after Winterkorn, 67, refused to go and other members of the supervisory board rallied behind him.
Volkswagen said Saturday that “the mutual trust necessary for successful cooperation no longer exists” on the supervisory board. As a result, Piech will give up his post as chairman, effective immediately. Ursula Piech, his wife, also gave up her seat on the board, Volkswagen said.
Berthold Huber, a labor leader who is deputy chairman of the supervisory board, will serve as acting chairman until a new chairman is chosen, Volkswagen said. In Germany, the supervisory board oversees the work of the management board, which is in charge of day-to-day operations.
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Piech’s resignation came as a surprise. He had a long history of winning power struggles, and many people had assumed he would win this one, too. For example, when Porsche, the sports carmaker, tried to take over Volkswagen in 2008, Piech was eventually able to turn the tables and take over Porsche instead.
Piech initiated the most recent power struggle when he told the German magazine Der Spiegel this month that he was distancing himself from Winterkorn. He did not publicly give a reason for his remark. The public undermining of a top manager was classic Piech. In the past, when he criticized a Volkswagen executive publicly, it was a sure sign the manager’s days were numbered.
This time, Piech appears to have miscalculated. His unilateral attempt to undercut Winterkorn annoyed the labor representatives on the supervisory board, who hold half the seats, and representatives of the state of Lower Saxony, which owns a 20 percent stake. They lined up behind Winterkorn. Volkswagen is based in Wolfsburg in Lower Saxony.
Stephan Weil, the prime minister of Lower Saxony, said Saturday of Piech: “It is no exaggeration to say that he is one of the most important people in the history of German business.
“Nevertheless, it was urgently necessary to end the speculation about persons and to ensure clarity in top management. Volkswagen and its many thousand employees must be able to concentrate on business.”
Though demanding, mercurial and often feared, Piech is credited with rescuing Volkswagen from near bankruptcy after he took over as chief executive in 1993. The grandson of Porsche’s founder, Ferdinand Porsche, Piech was an engineer by training and by nature who viewed technical excellence as the key to success in the car industry.
As a top executive at Volkswagen’s Audi division in the 1970s and 1980s, Piech oversaw the development of all-wheel drive in cars, a feature still associated with Audi. After he was appointed chief executive of the parent company, Piech ensured that even mass-market cars like the Volkswagen Golf had driving characteristics normally found in more expensive cars.
Under Piech — who remained Volkswagen’s CEO until 2002, when he became chairman of the supervisory board — Volkswagen became much more than a producer of automobiles for the middle class.
In his zeal to cover all segments of the market, the company acquired the Czech automaker Skoda to reach price-conscious buyers, while buying the Bentley, Lamborghini, Bugatti and Porsche brands to appeal to wealthy drivers.
The company also produces trucks under the Scania and MAN names and owns the motorcycle manufacturer Ducati. But the core Volkswagen brand has suffered from poor profitability. It has struggled to expand market share in the United States despite investing $1 billion to build a plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., where it manufactures Passat sedans and other cars.
Piech has faced criticism for his obsession with making Volkswagen the largest carmaker in the world rather than the most profitable. Now that he has left, there are sure to be questions about whether it makes sense for one company to be in so many market segments.
Volkswagen posted sales of about $220 billion, and net profit of about $11.7 billion in 2014.
The Porsche family, of which Piech is a member, has a majority stake in Volkswagen. But Piech has often clashed with his cousins, and they may be less opposed than he has been to breaking up the company to increase returns to shareholders.