Could Renault's 'spygate' benefit Volkswagen?

Bruce Gain is France correspondent for Automotive News Europe.Bruce Gain is France correspondent for Automotive News Europe.
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Renault's "spygate" affair over its electric car program could spell hiring opportunities for rivals, such as Volkswagen, which has recently recruited EV talent away from the French carmaker.

Renault has publicly apologized to the three executives it fired after falsely accusing them of taking bribes to give away the company's EV secrets. The company has offered them their jobs back, but the executives are not rushing back to their former employer.

Michel Balthazard, head of development projects, who has served Renault for over three decades, told reporters that he will not return to the company.

Balthazard's deputy, Bertrand Rochette, and Matthieu Tenenbaum, deputy head of the electric-vehicle program, could reject Renault's overtures as well.

Hiring the fired executives away from Renault could help Volkswagen or another competitor catch up with the Renault-Nissan Alliance's EV program, which is already two years ahead of any of its European competitors.

In October, Volkswagen hired Joerg Sommer, who formerly ran Renault's EV brand operations, as VW's sales director for e-mobility.

CEO Martin Winterkorn said last year that Volkswagen hopes to be the "market leader in e-mobility by 2018," yet his plans are ambitious considering the Renault-Nissan's lead.

Renault and Nissan will have invested 4 billion euros and launched eight EVs by the time Volkswagen introduces its first all-electric model in 2013. Renault is also laying the groundwork to begin production of 500,000 EVs in the next few years while VW hopes to begin selling 300,000 EV units annually by 2018.

The scenario where VW would hire one or more of the Renault executives would also serve as the latest example of the German carmaker's aggressive ploy to recruit new talent as part of its bid to topple Toyota and become the world's largest carmaker by 2018.

In 2010, VW hired Frank Tuch, a former Porsche AG executive, as VW's chief quality officer and Jonathan Browning, General Motors Co.'s former chief of worldwide sales, to head Volkswagen of America. VW also last year hired Hans Demant, a former Opel managing director, to take charge of VW's international project coordination.

As part of its hiring trend to bring in new talent to the company, VW has a lot to gain in know-how from the fired executives who helped Renault become the first European carmaker to lay the groundwork for full-volume production and development of EVs.

Catching up with Renault in the EV sector will also likely not hinge on whether or not it hires the executives. But ironically, the expertise VW might legally gather from Balthazard, Rochette, and Tenenbaum as VW employees could have only been previously gotten from leaks prior to the spygate affair.

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