Prof. Martin Winterkorn was born in May 1947, in Leonberg, Germany. Between 1966 and 1973 he studied Metallurgy and Metal Physics at the University of Stuttgart, before becoming a PhD student at the Max-Planck-Institute for Metal Research. It was here that he received his doctorate in 1977.
He joined Bosch in 1977, moving to Audi in 1981 as an assistant to the member of the board for quality assurance. Following several internal moves at Audi, he became head of group quality assurance at Volkswagen in 1993. Winterkorn took on the responsibility for many other roles at Volkswagen and latterly at Audi, before becoming chairman of the board of management of Volkswagen AG in January 2007, taking over from Bernd Pischetsrieder.
At the same time he also became chairman of the supervisory board of Audi AG and, a month later, the member of board of management responsible for group research and development. He was chairman of the board of management of the Volkswagen brand until June 2015. In 2009, Winterkorn joined the board of Porsche Automobil Holding SE, Stuttgart, assuming responsibility as chairman of the board of management.
It is said that Winterkorn was instrumental in encouraging former Volkswagen CEO Ferdinand Piëch to approve the production of the new Volkswagen Beetle. The original concept was unveiled at the 1994 North American International Auto Show, with production starting in 1997.
Ambition and attention to detail
Prof. Winterkorn, a huge football fan and German’s highest paid CEO, became known as a hugely ambitious man with a meticulous attention to detail. He would berate staff over the smallest of details, which in brings into question how such a huge scandal could slip by unnoticed. This is the man who would carry a measuring stick to check the uniformity of parts.
He publicly declared his aim of seeing Volkswagen become the world’s largest carmaker, an ambition he realised in June 2015, when Volkswagen sold more vehicles in the first half of the year than Toyota did.
Earlier this year he survived attempts by Ferdinand Piëch to force him out of the company, gaining support from government and officials. The reasons for the challenge to his leadership are unclear, but Piëch was forced to resign. More light may be shed on this matter over the coming weeks.
In 2012, Top Gear magazine named Winterkorn as one of ‘the men of the year’, based on his ability to keep ‘Volkswagen moving forward against the tide.’ He is listed as number 58 in the Forbes list of most powerful people, with an entry that states he has ‘urged European regulators not to overburden the automotive industry with excessive emission targets.’
Winterkorn: ‘I’m utterly sorry’
Speaking after news broke of the so-called Dieselgate scandal, Prof. Winterkorn said: “I’m very sorry, I’m utterly sorry.
“The violations of these diesel motors by our company go against everything that Volkswagen stands for… At this time I don’t yet have the answers to all the questions.
“I am endlessly sorry that we betrayed the trust. I apologise profusely to our clients, to the authorities and the entire public for the wrongdoing.”
Earlier this year, Winterkorn predicted 2015 would be a tough year for Volkswagen, saying: “We have always emphasised that 2015 will be a challenging year for the automotive industry as a whole, and also for us. Our key figures show that the VW Group remains on course, despite the headwinds.”
Needless to say, Winterkorn couldn’t have predicted just how challenging 2015 would shape up to be. Rather than signing a contract extension this week, Winterkorn stepped down from his position at the head of VW Group on 23 September.