Ferdinand Piech was absent from Volkswagen Group's annual meeting today after he quit as chairman last month, but he may cause VW's leadership more headaches than ever before.
Since May 4 was Star Wars Day, permit a small comparison. In the popular science fiction movie Obi-Wan Kenobi warned his protege, Darth Vader, before their fateful light saber duel on the Death Star, "strike me down and I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine."
By giving Piech no recourse but to resign, VW's supervisory board has turned Piech -- always a lightning rod for controversy -- into an uncontrollable agent operating outside the confines of the company.
Piech no longer needs to be governed by protocol. He sits on the board of VW’s largest shareholder, Porsche SE, and can now follow his own agenda without compromise. Indeed many industry watchers expect Piech to find a way to revenge himself at Porsche SE's annual meeting on May 13.
At VW's annual gathering in Hanover, the shadow of the 78-year-old VW patriarch seemed to follow CEO Martin Winterkorn wherever he went, whether navigating a maze of cars on display from the group’s 12 brands or standing at the podium giving his speech.
Piech's absence was so obvious it was almost as if VW needed to present the closest thing -- Piech’s younger brother, Hans Michel, in an obvious attempt at demonstrating unity within the family and board.
The younger Piech made a rare appearance with his cousin Wolfgang Porsche and Winterkorn during a choreographed tour of exhibition cars.
Winterkorn appeared almost to have no choice but to address the elephant in the room during his speech and praised effusively his former mentor.
“It’s important for me at this point to thank Dr. Piech -- not only on behalf of all 600,000 employees, but also personally,” Winterkorn said to the loud applause of the shareholders gathered.
“Over the past five decades, Ferdinand Piech has shaped the automotive industry like no other -- as an entrepreneur, as an engineer, as a courageous visionary. The group and its people have much to thank Dr. Piech for, this is something that will not change. And we and I have tremendous respect for this lifetime achievement.”
Previous VW shareholder meetings have been likened to a Kabuki theater, long-winded affairs where shareholder-rights advocates and fund managers blustered on about VW’s poor corporate governance standards only to effect zero change.
Today's meeting felt even more devoid of meaning because Piech's abrupt resignation on April 25 robbed investors of the chance to ask him directly what he saw behind the scenes that made him try to oust Winterkorn and ignite weeks of paralyzing power struggles in the company he built up into the world's No. 2 automaker just behind Toyota.