Audi Chairman enjoys high-speed perks

September 17, 2006|by JASON STEIN / Wheelbase Communications

Sometimes, when the traffic around the congested Bavarian city of Ingolstadt in southern Germany, isn't too congested and the fast-paced Autobahn freeway is empty, Martin Winterkorn admits he has a little fun.

He'll grab the keys of an Audi RS4 or a TT or a Q7, settle into his seat and take it up to 160 mph.

Being Audi's chairman isn't easy. But there are perks.

"I enjoy everything we've done here at Audi," Winterkorn told said during a brief chat on the sidelines of the Geneva Motor Show last March. "And sometimes I really try and enjoy it."

At Audi these days, life is good.

The brand is breaking sales records around the world. Its designs are cutting edge and cool. Its reputation is gaining. And Audi is turning all kinds of heads . . . and not just on the Autobahn.


"Audi interiors are a benchmark in this business," General Motors product boss Bob Lutz once said. "Everyone wants their stuff to look that good."

Winterkorn is one reason why.

Not only has the German engineer reignited the passion inside Audi, he has turned the carmaker into a legitimate premium player by making quality Job 1. Take the latest J.D. Power and Associates scores in Germany, a measure of customer satisfaction scores that were released this summer.

The biggest surprise wasn't where Toyota landed (first), but where Audi placed (first among non-Japanese brands and seventh overall).

For Winterkorn, the consummate technician, it was a sign that Audi is getting better.

"Inch by inch Audi is just moving a lot closer to the premium brands and, in most cases, takes them head-on," said Adam Jonas, an analyst for Morgan Stanley in London. "They are a player."

Again, credit Winterkorn, a guy who studied metallurgy (the science of extracting metals from their ores) at the University of Stuttgart just around the corner from another famous German carmaker - Mercedes-Benz - in the 1960s and early 1970s. Following graduation in 1973 he went on to earn his PhD in metal physics.

Given that background, it wouldn't have been a surprise to find him toiling around in a mine somewhere in Europe.

And cars were even a long way off when Winterkorn took his first job as an assistant in the research division at Bosch in 1977. A year later he was heading the company's refrigerator compressor development group.

From fridges to cars?

Winterkorn had gasoline in his veins. Eventually it would get the fire burning.

In 1981, he landed his first car gig, joining Audi as an assistant to the board member responsible for quality. And then it all came together.

Within a short period, Winterkorn's knack for quality came through. He steadily rose through the ranks, helping bring Audi quality to the forefront of everything the automaker planned. Within 10 years, Winterkorn was head of group quality assurance for the entire Volkswagen group. VW group owns and operates Audi and other subsidiaries.

It was no surprise that as Audi quality improved and became one of the industry's benchmark brands, Winterkorn's stock also rose.

After leading the VW group in technical development, Winterkorn was named chairman of Audi on March 1, 2002.

Since that time, Audi hasn't looked back.

In 2005, Audi posted record sales in 39 markets and bettered its overall sales record for the 10th year in a row. Within two years, Audi also hopes to break through the one million barrier for sales.

"It's entirely realistic that we could become the world's leading premium brand within the next 10 years," Winterkorn said. "The quality and appeal of our vehicles already serve as a benchmark."

And Winterkorn has been there at the ground floor to make it happen.

When the Q7 sport-utility vehicle was under development, insiders say Winterkorn took a personal interest in making sure everything was done exactly right . . . right down to the wind and road noise of the vehicle. With 50 percent of North American buyers sport-utility vehicle owners, he knew how important the Q7 was for the future of Audi.

"It is our first SUV, there was no room for failure."

And Winterkorn is promising even more in the future.

There is an ambitious model campaign planned that includes a new A1 as a Mini-Cooper fighter, as well as an A5 two-door coupe, a Q5 small sport ute, the R8 super sports car and possibly a Q3 as a coupe-like sport-ute.

Little old Audi, once the home of only a few sedans, will have nearly double what it has today by 2015.

"All kinds of surprises are in store," he says with a smile. "Just wait and see."

Jason Stein is a feature writer with Wheelbase Communications. You can drop him a line on the Web at:

Copyright 2006, Wheelbase Communication

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