As recently as April, Martin Winterkorn could have doubled as a winning contestant on the television show “Survivor.”
The CEO of Volkswagen AG emerged unscathed from a corporate coup, using gamesmanship to outlast a highly publicized attempt by company patriarch Ferdinand Piech to oust Winterkorn, his onetime protege.
For the 67-year-old victor, there was sudden talk of a contract extension — and by the end of the summer, it looked like Winterkorn would remain at the helm of the world’s top automaker until he was 71, according to the Associated Press.
Sure, the job was “exhausting,” Winterkorn told Der Spiegel — pointing out to the German newspaper that his demanding schedule had forced him to travel to four different countries in as many days — “but I also enjoy the job immensely,” he said.
“I’ll certainly keep doing it for a while longer, as long as I feel fit,” he said. “Shaping the next generation of the Golf … is something I want to be a part of.”
What a difference a few weeks makes.
Volkswagen admitted last week to installing software designed to cheat emissions tests in some 11 million cars worldwide, unleashing an epic, worldwide scandal that continues to gather strength.
Now, Winkertorn is no longer looking years ahead, but more likely hours.
His contract had been expected to be renewed at a company board meeting Friday — but that was before the emissions scandal exploded. According to Reuters, the board summoned Winkertorn on Wednesday “to explain the falsification of U.S. emissions tests in the biggest scandal in the 78-year history of the world’s largest carmaker.”
“A source close to the company said a five-member executive committee was grilling Winterkorn at the company’s headquarters in Wolfsburg, Germany,” Reuters reported, “and was likely to make a recommendation on his future ahead of a full board meeting on Friday.
The news agency quoted one analyst, Arndt Ellinghorst of Evercore ISI, as saying: “VW needs a fresh start and in our view a new CEO.”
A German newspaper, Tagesspiegel, reported Tuesday that Winkertorn would be replaced by Porsche chief executive Matthias Mueller. Volkswagen denied the report.
In a video statement released by Volkswagen on Tuesday, Winkertorn did not address his future with the company.
“I don’t have the answers to all the questions at this time,” he said. “But we are about to uncover the background relentlessly. Everything is coming on the table in these hours, as quickly, as thorough and as transparent as possible. And we continue to work closely with the responsible state agencies and authorities.”
He added: “Many millions of people around the world trust our brands, our cars and our technologies. I’m endlessly sorry that we disappointed this trust. I apologize. … Please believe me, we will do everything to make the losses good again.”
Volkswagen’s stock price has plunged by about one third since Friday, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency alleged that company officials illegally rigged their vehicles’ pollution-control systems so they would run cleanly only during emissions tests, while spewing higher levels of pollutants on the highway.
Volkswagen acknowledged Tuesday that it had installed the software designed to cheat emissions tests in some 11 million cars worldwide.
“Volkswagen was concealing the facts from the EPA, from the state of California and consumers,” Cynthia Giles, assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, said at a news conference announcing legal action against the company. “We expected better from VW.”
They weren’t the only ones.
During Winterkorn’s eight-year tenure, the German automaker has cultivated a squeaky-clean image as a company as conscientious about going green as it is about forward-thinking design. In recent years, the CEO vowed to reinvent the company as the world’s biggest electrical carmaker, selling 1 million electric vehicles by 2020, according to Forbes.
At a presentation last week, Winterkorn took a large step in moving VW closer to that goal, unveiling plans for creating 20 electric or hybrid models by the same date, according to Automotive News.
“We are in the process of reinventing Europe’s largest automaker,” he said. “By 2020, we will have transformed all of our new cars into smartphones on wheels.”
At the same time, Forbes noted, Winterkorn had pressed European regulators to avoid “excessive emission targets” while company rushed to develop fuel-efficient technology.
FE research analyst Charles Younes told the Telegraph that he expected the evolving scandal would come as a shock to American consumers and could reverberate for years.
“Especially as the American consumer-base has traditionally viewed European cars as cleaner than their U.S counterparts,” he said. “This news will have huge reputational and financial implications – and when you consider that Germans are viewed as above board and there is a level of trust readily given manufactures from that country – the ramifications can continue for years.”
An engineer by training, Winterkorn studied Metallurgy and Metal Physics at the University of Stuttgart from 1966 to 1973, according to Bloomberg. He completed his doctorate at the Max-Planck-Institut für Metallforschung und Metallphysik in 1977.
By 2007, Winterkorn was overseeing research and development across Volkswagen, according to the AP.
He is known for his exacting accountability, according to worldofceos.com, which noted that Winterkorn “personally” checked new vehicles and made a habit of having vehicles that were ready for shipment pulled out and inspected. The Web site said Winterkorn is also known for holding meetings with dealers to hear customer feedback.
The illegal software was installed in vehicles with 2.0-liter diesel engines between 2009 and 2015 and included the Audi A3, VW Jetta, Beetle, Golf and Passat, according to the AP.
“It’s almost impossible to imagine that he didn’t know about this special way of programming the engine,” Guido Reinking, a German auto expert, told German television station n-tv, according to the AP.
Despite nearly doubling group revenue and tripling profit during his time at the helm of Volkswagen, Winterkorn struck a relatively modest tone in interviews. Asked why he needed an annual salary that tops $20 million, he has said his compensation is merely a reflection of his company’s success.
“Well, I don’t own a yacht or a Picasso,” he told Der Spiegel. “If I do treat myself to something once in a while, it’s a nice watch. But the bonus also represents the success of the company, for which not only the executives, but also all the employees are responsible. That’s why Volkswagen employees in Germany also received a record bonus.”
In February, before Winterkorn’s headline-grabbing power struggle with Piech and the subsequent talk of an extension, he told the Wall Street Journal that he’d already made plans for retirement.
Depending on what happens this week, those plans might be back on the table.
“I would move to Munich, to Bavaria,” he said. “My wife comes from the area.”
Julia Smirnova and Joby Warrick contributed to this report, which was originally posted on Sept. 22 and has since been updated.