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  • Volkswagen's Carl Hahn: An early global visionary

    He turned Volkswagen into a global powerhouse..

    Automotive News Europe

    In 11 years as chairman, Carl Hahn, 79, changed Volkswagen group from a German manufacturer focused on a single product into the diversified multi-brand international giant it is today.

    A global business visionary in a pre-global era, Hahn brought VW to China, presided over the automaker's acquisition of Spain's Seat and the Czech manufacturer Skoda, and formed joint ventures across the globe.

    In January 1982, Hahn replaced Toni Schmücker as head of Volkswagen. He led the company until January 1993, when he handed over the reins to Ferdinand Piëch, who now heads Volkswagen group's supervisory board.

    Hahn took over VW at an awkward time. The company had become a "Golf empire" with a fierce concentration on its primary car model, much like it had been a "Beetle empire" under its first post-war head, Heinrich Nordhoff.

    While that focus allowed VW to capitalize on the sales success of the Golf and turn it into the dominant model in Europe, it limited its future options.

    Hahn put VW on broader, international feet. While Volkswagen continued its emphasis on building sensible cars, premium brand Audi blossomed into a technology leader with Hahn's approval, positioning it for the later boom in upmarket brands.

    Hahn is a cosmopolitan man with vast international experience. He had been head of Volkswagen North America when the Beetle created a cult-like following there and later left the company for a period to become CEO of Continental.

    Shortly after he became president, Volkswagen assembled its first Santana sedan in mainland China. During Hahn's tenure, VW was the only foreign automaker active in China, the world's most populous country. VW's joint ventures with two Chinese automakers gave it a commanding share of the budding market.

    In 1982, Hahn's first year as boss, VW began a cooperation with Spanish automaker Seat and in 1986 acquired a 51 percent share of Seat. In 1990, VW acquired Czech automaker Skoda. The additions gave the VW group a portfolio of bargain, mainstream and premium brands as well as a stronger regional presence in the growing southern and eastern European markets. The four-brand strategy became the foundation that has made VW Europe's No. 1 auto group, with a 19 percent market share.

    Hahn also introduced several joint ventures, including a 1987 joint production deal with Toyota and in 1990 with Ford to jointly produce minivans in Setubal, Portugal.

    Hahn was also at the forefront of German reunification. In 1990 as the Soviet Union broke up, VW invested heavily in the former East Germany, changing the automotive landscape there.

    The multilingual Hahn's business ventures reflected his personality, which is communicative and open to discussion and new ideas. Hahn was more of a consensus builder and used a more diplomatic management style than his successor, Piëch.

    Despite his retirement from VW, Hahn maintains an office and has recently completed an autobiography. In his book, Hahn argues that Germany -- and Volkswagen -- must change to remain successful in the global marketplace. Hahn criticizes the German model of "co-determination" between management and workers' representatives. It gives unions "a first-class veto position," Hahn says.