The Porsche Story A Fierce Family Feud
Part 3: 'We Have a Few Percent More than You'
Nevertheless, the Piëchs long benefited from the fruits of this upbringing. Whenever there were conflicts, the Porsches consistently sought compromise or simply gave in. But this approach had ceased to work by the early 1970s, when sharp differences developed among the four descendants of the families who were working at Porsche: designer Ferdinand Alexander Porsche, who had designed the successful 911, production chief Hans-Peter Porsche, distribution chief Hans Michel Piëch and R&D chief Ferdinand Piëch.
The conflict began with Ferdinand Piëch, who had backed the extremely costly development of the Porsche 917 racecar. His approach at the time was the same one he would apply in his subsequent career at Audi and VW: He insisted on the best technology possible, at any cost. The others accused him of wasting money, while he in turn scoffed that, in a family business, one's career can suffer a setback "if you don't say a proper hello to a family member at breakfast."
'We Quarreled Terribly'
In 1970, Ferry Porsche summoned the family members to take part in group therapy at Schüttgut, a farm in the Austrian town of Zell am See where he and his sister Louise Piëch had taken their children during World War II. He hoped that the building alone, as well as the memories of their shared childhood experience, would have a calming effect on the rebellious offspring.
But the outcome of the gathering was not what he had expected. "We quarreled terribly," says Ferdinand Piëch. The family decided that none of its members would work at Porsche in the future, and that outside managers would run the company.
Since then, most of the family members have only played within the auto industry the role of relatively invisible Porsche owners, but no longer as active managers. However, for Ferdinand Piëch, the changes jump-started his career, which first led to the top post at Audi and then to the chairmanship of the VW Group.
The fact that Piëch became the central divisive figure in the family early on was partly attributable to his turbulent private life, which is reflected in numbers: He has 12 children from four different relationships.
He was first married during his student years, and that marriage produced five children. In 1972, he had an affair with, of all people, Marlene Porsche, the wife of his cousin, Gerd Porsche. The transgression turned the Porsche clan against the Piëch scion. The Porsches objected to the affair, partly on moral grounds, but also because it upset the carefully balanced equilibrium between the two families.
The estate of Ferdinand Porsche had been equally divided between the Porsches and the Piëchs. Ferry Porsche and his four children each had a 10-percent share of the sports car manufacturer and the dealership organization. His sister Louise Piëch and her four children also owned 10 percent each. But when Marlene Porsche divorced Gerd Porsche, he was forced to relinquish a portion of his share to her.
This led some members of the family to accuse Ferdinand Piëch of trying to secure a larger share in the company through his liaison with Marlene. Piëch says: "For that reason alone, marriage would never have been an option for me."
Ferdinand Piëch lived "more or less together" with Marlene for 12 years, during which he fathered two children with her -- and two more with another woman. "I can identify with both the ascetic and the oriental way of life," he later said, commenting on his lifestyle. "At any rate, I know that I derived my creative energy from the quieter times."
He eventually left Marlene for a nanny, Ursula Plasser, to the renewed chagrin of the other branch of the family. Piëch had three children with Plasser, and the couple is still married today.
The way he treated Marlene still enrages some members of the Porsche family when they encounter Ferdinand Piëch today. His older brother Ernst also caused his share of distress when he tried to sell his shares in the company to Arab investors in 1983. The remaining family members had to raise close to 100 million German marks to prevent the sale. Because the two sides of the family split Ernst Piëch's shares, the Porsche side has held more than half of the shares since then.
The incident, which the family refers as the "Ernst case," still affects internal conflicts today. Admittedly the families have committed themselves to voting in unison on the Porsche supervisory board and in the Salzburg-based network of dealerships, which requires that they come to an agreement beforehand.
However, whenever there is discord, Wolfgang Porsche is fond of reminding the "other family" that "we have a few percent more than you."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan.