It was just a few months ago that the rumor mills were buzzing in Detroit aboutabout the fate of General Motors Chairman Rick Wagoner as Carlos Ghosn was collabor-ating with investor Kirk Kerkorian on the possibility of Renault/Nissan buying a stake in the world’s largest automaker. It’s funny how quickly fates change. It appears that others should have been worried about their positions on the pedestals of power. In the past few months, a number of high-caliber auto executive have been sent packing: Helmut Panke of BMW, Jean-Martin Folz of PSA and, most recently, Bernd Pischetsrieder of Volkswagen. These changes, and the announcement by Fiat Auto Chairman Sergio Marchionne that he will move over to head parent company Fiat Group, could be a harbinger of more changes in the executive suites. Imagine the power that is now sitting on the sidelines. Panke would make a great addition to any luxury marque, including a revived Aston Martin, while Folz has proven skills at turning around troubled businesses.
But the biggest opportunity rests inside Volkswagen, which has proven yet again that even though Ferdinand Piech left the helm years ago, he still wields the power. Remember a few months ago when Piech said Pischetsrieder was D.O.A.? Even though VW’s board extended Pischetsrieder’s contract, that meant squat. Pischetsrieder’s experience with BMW and Volkswagen would make him an ideal candidate to lead just about any automaker, since he has experience running both high-end luxury and mass-market brands. Could this be Alan Mulally’s opportunity to bring in new thinking when it comes to meeting his goal of forming one global Ford product development team? After all, Pischetsrieder was a key player in the VW plan to reduce platforms and boost component sharing across a myriad of brands and vehicles.
While the Pischetsrieder news may be the buzz, the story brings another key player into focus: Wolfgang Bernhard. Everyone knows this man’s lineage in the industry: he helped revive Chrysler, but was cut off at the knees when he tried to bring radical thinking to the restructuring of Mercedes. He moved over to Volkswagen and was expected to become the heir apparent after Pischetsrieder’s contract ran out in 2012. Not anymore. You’ve got to wonder whether Bernhard will be relegated to the same fate as his now former boss, or whether he will continue to stick with Germany’s number-one player. Hopefully the big bosses of the biz aren’t waiting to see what VW decides and are taking proactive steps to court him. My money is on Dieter Zetsche, Bernhard’s former mentor, making the move that causes him to return to his first home in the industry. Whether Zetsche convinces him to take back control of Chrysler, which may be in need of another sweeping of the executive floor, or gives him the keys to the Mercedes brand, Zetsche needs to get Bernhard back. If he were brought back into Chrysler, it may be seen as a familiar face coming back to right the ship, as opposed to hiring outsiders who would be less graciously accepted upon their arrival. The Mercedes helm would be ideal, but there may still be a few open wounds that would need to be nursed.
The other members of the new auto executive leadership bench provide a rare opportunity for Ford, especially since Alan Mulally has said publicly he wants to appoint a global head of product planning and manufacturing. Maybe the product job would be ideal for Panke to take on a temporary basis? It would be unorthodox, but worth considering as BMW has solidified its place as a leader in product and process, albeit for a more luxury level price point. This is one of those rare moments where those in the know may be looking for some fresh opportunities.