Wendelin Wiedeking arrived at Porsche’s factory near Stuttgart as a young engineer in 1983.
He leaves a quarter of a century later a much richer man – but with the manner of his departure casting a shadow over his otherwise hugely successful career.
To many observers, his attempt to gain control of Volkswagen (VW) was a mark of hubris, the action of a man who believed that he simply could do no wrong.
But others believe the reality is far more complex than that.
When Mr Wiedeking became chief executive of Porsche in 1993, the company was struggling to survive as an independent carmaker. Under his guidance it recovered to become one of the most efficient manufacturers in the world.
His philosophy of “lean thinking” helped Porsche to reduce its costs dramatically, freeing up cash to invest in new models, including the controversial but successful sports utility vehicle, the Cayenne.
There’s no doubt that this helped to cement his reputation as one of the best engineering brains in the industry. Experts say that when it comes to the day-to-day running of a car company, he has few equals.
When Porsche made its move to take control of VW, it initially enhanced Mr Wiedeking’s reputation. The company embarked on a buying spree, acquiring 51% of VW’s shares, as well as options to take its stake to 75%.
It wasn’t the first time the company had dabbled in the financial markets. In fact, it had been trading in VW share options for several years – and making a tidy profit in the process.
But the audacity of the move took the markets by surprise – and left hedge funds which had been gambling on a fall in VW’s share price nursing huge losses. Mr Wiedeking was widely applauded for his chutzpah and business acumen.
Then of course, it all went horribly wrong.
The seizing up of credit markets made it impossible for Porsche to complete its takeover of VW, and left it struggling to cope with huge debts run up while buying VW stock.
Mr Wiedeking found himself fighting for Porsche’s survival – as bitter infighting broke out between the Porsche and Piech families, the rival clans which control the company.
But was he wholly responsible for Porsche’s problems? Perhaps not.
“Wiedeking is an executor. Full stop,” says Christoph Stuermer, an analyst with IHS Global Insight.
“He works to order on behalf of the family. But the grand plan isn’t his job. There are bigger egos at play here.”
One of those bigger egos is unquestionably Ferdinand Piech.
The chairman and former chief executive of Volkswagen, he is also a major shareholder in Porsche. And he has a reputation as a ruthless businessman.
His grandfather, Ferdinand Porsche, designed the original VW Beetle, as well as setting up the sportscar firm that bears his name.
Many experts believe Mr Piech was the original driving force behind efforts to bring the two companies together.
Such a move would safeguard the future of Porsche, giving it access to VW financial muscle. At the same time it would protect VW from the threat of being taken over by a foreign company.
“Piech knew that Porsche couldn’t survive on its own in the long term,” says Christoph Stuermer.
“He sent the company on a quest to find a bigger brother, and the most convenient option happened to be Volkswagen.”
But while Mr Piech may have wanted to bring the two firms closer together, a takeover of VW by Porsche was apparently not what he had in mind.
Both privately and publicly, he began to criticise Mr Wiedeking, prompting an irate response from the Porsche chief executive.
Initially, Mr Wiedeking did retain powerful support from his chairman, Wolfgang Porsche. But ultimately, that may have done him more harm than good.
Mr Porsche is a cousin of Ferdinand Piech. But there is little love lost between the two cousins, or the clans they represent.
As Porsche’s troubles mounted, Mr Wiedeking became a pawn in a power struggle between the two families, which have very different visions for the carmaker’s future.
For Ferdinand Piech, the future lies in VW and Porsche becoming a fully integrated company, with VW dictating terms.
The Porsche clan wants the sports car maker to retain its independence as part of a much looser grouping. To make that vision possible, it’s seeking new investment from Qatar.
Now a compromise appears to be in sight. But it seems that Mr Wiedeking is paying a heavy price for upsetting Ferdinand Piech.
“Piech is a formidable opponent,” says Krish Bhaskar of the Motor Industry Research Unit. “There could only be one loser – and the loser is Wiedeking”.
For all his success at Porsche, Mr Wiedeking had one crucial weakness.
He was an accomplished engineer, but a poor politician. And that, say experts, goes a long way to explain his downfall.
- BBC NEWS