Insider: The Return of Bernhard?

An interesting headline appeared in the news after the Geneva Motor Show: “VW Chief Fights for Survival.” Does that sound familiar to anyone?

An interesting headline appeared in the news after the Geneva Motor Show: “VW Chief Fights for Survival.” Does that sound familiar to anyone? Maybe GM’s Rick Wagoner feels a sense of empathy? What’s interesting about this latest spat is that VW boss Bernd Pischetsrieder seemed to be pretty secure. After all, he was personally anointed by VW’s über-leader, Ferdinand Piech, who controls VW’s Supervisory Board and also happens to be the automaker’s largest shareholder thanks to his pedigree as the scion of the Porsche family, which now controls 21.3% of VW’s equity. But it appears Piech may be having a change of heart, after telling reporters it remained an “open issue” whether Pischetsrieder’s contract would be extended beyond its December 2007 expiration. If that’s not like getting struck across the head with a 2-x-4, I don’t know what is.

Left flailing among all this infighting is one of the most revered and respected individuals in the global auto industry: Wolfgang Bernhard. After being ousted by DaimlerChrysler a few years ago, Bernhard tried pairing up with GM, but egos (particularly the one of Mr. Bob Lutz) got in the way. That led him to VW, where he is wielding his power to revamp the Volkswagen brand and build its presence in the crucial U.S. market. Problem is, Bernhard was brought in under Pischetsrieder and we all know what happens when you ride the coattails of someone who loses his coat. If the rancor builds to a crescendo and Pischetsrieder is handed his walking papers, it may be in the best interest of everyone in Detroit to burn up the phone lines to Wolfsburg and urge Bernhard to return to the U.S., where he’d worked for five years.

Sure, Dieter Zetsche may have a good chance to get his former compatriot to return to DCX, but Bernhard may also feel up to the challenge of tackling the rebuilding of Ford’s or GM’s product range. According to some of Bernhard’s closest comrades, the product genius has an affinity for the U.S. and still maintains a residence in Florida. My advice to GM’s Mr. Wagoner and Mr. Ford: Be ready to jump at the chance, because guys like this come along only once-in-a-lifetime. Bernhard is to the auto industry what John Nash was to mathematics—a genius with a sixth sense for product design and development. It’s amazing to watch him get acquainted with a product and put it through its paces.

Bernhard could fill a key void at Ford, where product development leaders have come and gone like the seasons, while finally giving the product some soul. For GM in particular, recruiting Bernhard could solve the age-old mystery of who will succeed Lutz, who doesn’t seem willing to hand over the reigns until he loses his pulse. Rick, it’s time for Bob to get out of the way if Bernhard needs to abandon ship. All eyes will be watching Wolfsburg to see just what happens in mid-April when Piech and other members of the board decide Pischetsrieder’s fate, but the real excitement may be happening behind the curtain.