The man who could have prevented #dieselgate. VW recalls him

Highly trained firedog

Highly trained firedog

Volkswagen reactivated Bernd Gottweis, a veteran of crisis-prevention, reports the usually well-informed Sueddeutsche Zeitung. Gottweis, long past retirement age, is supposed to help Volkswagen douse the dieselgate firestorm. High executives at VW already call him the “Red Adair of Volkswagen,” and they are wrong. That’s just not how Gottweis works.

Until around the time Martin Winterkorn became CEO of the Volkswagen Group, Gottweis headed a small and highly mobile team of troubleshooters at Volkswagen. The group sniffed-out dodgy cases, and snubbed them out before they could bring the company down. Officially, the group was called “Ausschuss für Produkt-Sicherheit (APS)” (product safety taskforce), unofficially, the team quickly was called “Feuerwehr-Kreis” (firefighter circle). Of course, “product safety” was a euphemism. The taskforce convened and deployed around the world to protect the company from harm caused by an explosive mix of the company’s failing products, and rabid plaintiff attorneys.

Bernd Gottweis is an unassuming, no-nonsense man. He talks no BS, and he takes none either. He embodies the old guard of VW, before Piech: Rugged, honest, a promise is a promise, no fancy PhDs, nor professor titles needed. He loves to tell stories, like how during and after Audi’s SUA crisis, lawyers would hang out in Arrivals at large airports, ready to pounce on incoming VW execs, and to shove a court order in their pockets. He has a healthy respect for the NHTSA and EPA. He taught me a lot about hands-on product liability, the dreaded TREAD act, recalls, and mysterious unsolved service cases.

Gottweis has a nose for trouble. He can smell shit while it is still in the stomach. His firefighter circle wasn’t always popular at VW. Bringers of bad news live dangerously in most organizations. His findings often angered Martin Winterkorn while WiKo was still chief of Volkswagen’s QA, and dogged Gottweis made him look bad. However, under the umbrella of the Group Service and Parts division, Gottweis was protected from meddling. Service and Parts saw itself as the voice of customers and dealers, and that was often diametrically opposed to the voice of engineering. Which, bottom line, made for a well-functioning, if not always harmonious, process.

When Winterkorn arrived as Volkswagen CEO on January 1, 2007, things changed. Service and Parts became a department of QA at first, then it became part of hated sales chief Christian Klingler’s portfolio. In a decapitation of the firefighter circle, Bernd Gottweis was shifted to “Umweltschutz und Verbraucherfragen” (environmental protection and customer matters). Gottweis headed the toothless department until his retirement. Suddenly, very few inconvenient problems were found, and top managers could congratulate themselves to yet another brilliant example of decision-making.

If Gottweis would have been fire chief when the first defeat devices were deployed, top management would have been notified immediately. After his departure, the firemen did nothing, likely for fear of getting fired.

Now, Gottweis is supposed to help the firemen find their hoses.