WASHINGTON -- Last fall, before Volkswagen's national dealer meeting in Atlanta, Mike Schwartz saw a glimpse of the candor that VW of America CEO Michael Horn has become known for among dealers.
Schwartz, general manager of Galpin Volkswagen near Los Angeles, was among a small group of dealers invited to take an early test drive of two Golf models and offer feedback to visiting executives from Germany. He recalled how Horn, 52, gave his boss at the time, VW global sales chief Christian Klingler, a polite but clear dressing-down for VW's past mistakes in the U.S., prodding him to listen to American dealers.
"He was very transparent about what our needs were and where he thought that VW had screwed up in this market," Schwartz recalled. "It was refreshing to hear the CEO go back to Germany -- really, to go back to dad and say, 'Dad, you screwed up.'"
Horn's candor could be his best asset or his Achilles' heel as he assumes the burden of being VW's public face in the U.S., a key pillar in its hopes for a recovery from the diesel emissions scandal.
Horn -- who emerged from VW's management shake-up with his own job intact but under a new organizational structure -- is set to testify this week at a hearing before lawmakers on Capitol Hill, which has been the scene of humiliating interrogations of top executives from General Motors, Toyota, Takata, Honda and Chrysler in the past few years.
The setting could be a challenge for the blunt Horn as he tries to convey VW's contrition to the satisfaction of U.S. lawmakers without alienating his new bosses at headquarters or further tarnishing the VW name.
Horn, 52, is known for going off-script, abandoning the safety of talking points penned by lawyers and PR handlers. That tendency, says one former VW insider who worked with him, while endearing, has its downsides.
"He always said to me 'I'm not a fake person,'" the insider said.
Just days after VW's emissions violations were disclosed by the EPA last month, Horn was before an audience of reporters and VW dealers at a product unveiling. There, he avoided the cleared-by-legal language that typically follows news of corporate malfeasance in favor of a plain-English apology: "We have totally screwed up."