Wiedeking Leaves Big Shoes to Fill at Porsche

Last Updated Jul 23, 2009 9:32 AM EDT

Ex-Porsche Chairman and CEO Wendelin Wiedeking leaves big shoes to fill at Porsche, literally and figuratively.

Wiedeking, 56, led Porsche through a dramatic turnaround that probably saved the company in the 1990s, forcing the hidebound German luxury automaker to adopt lean, Toyota-style production methods and quality control.

He liked to recall in interviews that that when he first joined the company in the 1980s, in material management, the Porsche factory was stacked floor to ceiling with parts, with literally no room to turn around, a visible symbol of gross inefficiency. He left the company in frustration for a few years, then rejoined Porsche as board member in charge of production and materials management in 1991.

Wiedeking towers over most people, at a jowly six feet, six inches and pushing 300 pounds, with feet to match. He can be cheerful, friendly and informal, especially by the standards of German auto executives, but he doesn't suffer fools gladly, either. To borrow a catch phrase from one of my favorite authors, W.E.B. Griffin, Wiedeking is "not burdened with a lot of false modesty."

But if Wiedeking talks tough, he can back it up. More or less singlehandedly, Wiedeking made arrogant Porsche swallow its pride and admit that it could learn from the Japanese.

On Wiedeking's watch, Porsche also added an SUV to its lineup, the Cayenne, which drove Porsche 911 sports car purists crazy. Not only that, the company is also about to introduce the Panamera, a four-door sedan -- another heretical, Wiedeking-inspired notion.

But today Porsche confirmed that Wiedeking and his finance guy, Holger Haerter, 53, are out at Porsche, presumably because their strategy of taking over the much larger Volkswagen AG backfired.

The new chairman of the Porsche board of management is Michael Macht, currently the board member of Porsche AG in charge of production and logistics. Thomas Edig, board member in charge of human resources, becomes his deputy. Haerter was board member for finance and controlling.

Under Wiedeking, Porsche made an audacious move to take over the much-larger Volkswagen, ultimately achieving a controlling share in September 2008. At the time, I described the Porsche-Volkswagen transaction as, "David Swallows Goliath." It turns out, David wasn't able to digest Goliath, as auto sales fell nearly worldwide, and Porsche wasn't able to carry the huge debt it took on, to finance the VW takeover. The transaction was also part of a long-running feud within the Porsche family, which also dominates VW, and now it looks as if VW will take over Porsche instead of the other way around.

As part of their departure, Wiedeking and Haerter are also resigning seats on the supervisory board of Volkswagen AG.

"In the last weeks Wiedeking and Haerter have come to the conclusion, that the further strategic development of Porsche SE and Porsche AG is better off, if they are not on board as acting persons," Porsche said in a written statement today.