Intense, precise and a little wild, Wolfgang Durheimer led turnarounds at Porsche and Bentley. Now he’s Volkswagen’s rising star.
In a Dassault Falcon 12,000 feet above Germany, Wolfgang Durheimer, the man many say is being groomed to lead Volkswagen, the world’s third-largest automaker, is talking motorcycles.
“I very much wanted to be a motorcycle racer–every day I would train for hours to achieve this goal,” he explains, commuting home to England after a full day of meetings at VW headquarters in Wolfsburg. But his humble family income and 6-foot-1 frame made it clear by his late teens that elite status was not for him. So if he couldn’t ride racing bikes, he’d design them. It proved an auspicious switch–as a university student he sent BMW his thesis paper on how to improve the rear design of its racing bikes, which had trouble on off-road courses. BMW liked his ideas so much they hired him at age 27.
That’s what makes his ascent to the Asgardian heights of übercorporate Volkswagen all the more surprising. Six weeks after that flight–taken as part of a story I was writing about Bentley, the VW brand Durheimer was running at the time–he was named head of research and development for Audi, widely considered to be the most important engineering post in a company where engineering is religion. It’s a key stop on the fast track to–maybe, just maybe–running all of Volkswagen some day. It’s certainly proof that he’s got a friend in Martin Winterkorn, the imperious 65-year-old chairman of the board of management of Volkswagen AG, who has run the company since 2007 and is the oldest executive there.
“Rising star? Yes. Close to Winterkorn: important. And he is an engineer,” says a VW source who knows the company’s legendary politics well. “He will play a significant role in the next couple of years.” Says Scott Keogh, the head of Audi of America: “He has a very impressive reputation within the group. He is very smart.” Winterkorn did not comment for FORBES.
Guessing at Durheimer’s career trajectory is more than just a parlor game. His shift from Bentley to Audi is a crucial part of the overhaul Winterkorn willed in June for Volkswagen AG, the $221.9 billion (2011 sales) holding company that encompasses Volkswagen, Audi, Bentley, Bugatti, Ducati, some of Porsche, Lamborghini, MAN and Skoda, part of a scheme to surpass Toyota and GM to become the world’s largest-selling automaker. Of VW’s 400 top executives, Durheimer is considered among the top 15–and he may be even more important than that.
The reason? China. If Winterkorn wants a chance to fulfill his promise as the world’s biggest automaker, he’ll have to extend VW’s lead in the world’s largest growth market. The Volkswagen brand sold 2.3 million vehicles in China in 2011, up 18% from 2010, and is expected to sell 2.5 million there this year, versus 1 million for Toyota. But the real prize is the luxury-car market, where sales for some topline brands are already besting those in the U.S. Audi already far outsells BMW and Mercedes-Benz in China. Durheimer, Winterkorn hopes, can extend that lead–and develop cars that will sell better in the U.S., where Audi lags rivals.
Durheimer joined VW in 1999 via Porsche–he was hired to retool the 911 model series. Later he introduced the Cayenne SUV to stunning success worldwide, making it Porsche’s top-selling model. He directed the launch of Bugatti’s new performance flagship, the $2.1 million Bugatti Veyron Grand Sport, and at Bentley successfully negotiated the launch of the updated Continental GTC. Sales at Bentley shot up 37% last year worldwide–and rose 95% in China. By the end of 2012 China may overtake the U.S. as Bentley’s biggest market. (Bentley sold 1,800 cars in China in 2011, slightly fewer than the 2,021 sold in the U.S.)
During his 18-month stint running Bentley, none of the workers on the factory floor in tiny Crewe, England, or in the executive offices in Wolfsburg characterized him as cuddly, but they appreciated his evenhanded and direct manner; one foreman recalled how Durheimer sent each employee his personal e-mail address before a roundtable coffee session. That he frequently referenced the thick engineering manuals he keeps on his desk didn’t hurt his mystique, either.
No surprise, he has already started making a mark at Audi, suspending plans to produce the all-electric R8 supercar (too expensive and impractical) and initiating the design of multiple new models (Audi declined to give further specifics).
Does the challenge of taking on BMW and Mercedes in the world’s most important market concern him? No more than skiing a Black Diamond run. To Durheimer success is just a by-product of focus. “This is an engineering-driven company, and the growth [in China] is constant,” Durheimer says. “I see no reason why it will stop.