VW chairman sparks potential battle over CEO position

VW chairman Ferdinand Piech has \'distanced\' himself from CEO Martin Winterkorn as the company faces stagnant sales in the US market.

A leadership dispute appears to be brewing within Volkswagen Group's top ranks, potentially threatening Martin Winterkorn's position as chief executive.

Supervisory board chairman Ferdinand Piech sparked the controversy when he told Der Spiegel that he had 'distanced' himself from Winterkorn. Piech did not provide any context, but the comment has been widely interpreted as a sign that he has lost confidence in the chief executive.

Under Winterkorn's watch, the German automaker has struggled to invigorate sales in some markets. Sales of VW-badged cars were particularly sluggish, sliding by 10 percent in 2014 and down by nine percent for the first three months of 2015. Audi has followed the industry upswing, with sales up by 13 percent in 2014 and rising by 14 percent so far in 2015.

Regarded as a powerful member of the supervisory board, Piech served as VW Group CEO for nine years before retiring from the management board in 2002. He is credited with guiding a turnaround effort that saved the company from bankruptcy.

Piech's position has not been publicly backed by other members of the board, some of which have instead voiced support for Winterkorn. The CEO has also reportedly received backing from union leaders, which hold half the voting positions on the board, and the company's home state of Lower Saxony, which holds 20 percent of the voting rights as a shareholder, according to a Reuters follow-up report.

"The comment from Dr Piech represents his personal opinion which has in substance and factually not been coordinated with the family," said fellow board member Wolfgang Porsche, who is also chairman of the Porsche holding company that owns a majority stake in VW's common stock.

The dispute will likely be settled next year, when Winterkorn's contract is up for renewal.

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