GM's new Opel chief Neumann is no yes man
Neumann: Tough time in China assignment
If General Motors was looking for a compliant new head of Opel, Karl-Thomas Neumann was probably the wrong choice, sources tell our German sibling publication, Automobilwoche. The 51-year-old electrical engineer and passionate marathoner does not bend easily, they say.
As CEO at Continental AG from 2004 to 2009, Neumann's youthful charm initially helped him with his major shareholder, Maria-Elisabeth Schaeffler. But he defied Schaeffler more than once over the supplier's crushing debt and left in 2009 with a big settlement.
Neumann was welcomed back to Volkswagen, where he had worked from 1999 to 2004. In Wolfsburg, he helped create vehicles such as the e-Up and the e-Golf and was seen as a possible successor to CEO Martin Winterkorn.
In 2010 Neumann was named VW's top China exec. But sources say he struggled while toiling far from the circles of influence at headquarters. He was blamed for problems with transmission production in China, which his supporters say resulted from decisions made before he came. They say it was Neumann's casual, unconventional leadership style and healthy ego that did him in.
"In the end, the chemistry between Winterkorn/ [VW Group Chairman Ferdinand] Piech on one side and Neumann on the other was no longer right," a VW insider said. The Wolfsburg source said Winterkorn decided Neumann was not a good fit at straight-laced VW.
Neumann joins Opel on March 1 amid one of the worst crises in the company's history. Those who know him say it won't be hard for the rangy engineer to get employees on his side. But they are asking themselves how much independence GM will give its new free-wheeling Opel CEO.