November 17, 2004
By: Jason Teller
What does it take to end an 8 month stint as Vice President in charge of Audi of America and Canada? I’m betting Axel Mees would like to take back the unflattering comments he made about former Volkswagen CEO Ferdinand Piech and the VW Phaeton to journalists gathered in San Francisco for the launch of the new Audi A6.
I was in the room that night and wondered, along with my colleagues, if there would be serious fallout after Mees remarked about the Volkswagen Phaeton that, “It could be the best car, but I would still not buy it because it has the VW logo and because I have to go to a VW dealership where the salesmen are used to selling Jettas and Golfs”. Those comments alone may have generated some ire but not a full blown dismissal, however Mees went on to add that “Piech was an engineer and he wanted to prove that he [could] build great cars, and he didn’t look at the marketing aspect, the brand aspect.”
Public criticism of Piech – the man many credit with a revival of the VW/Audi brands, the nephew of Ferry Porsche and still the current chairman of VW’s supervisory board – was quite simply a bumbling, career limiting move.
It was no surprise today, then, that Axel Mees was sacked by Volkswagen AG CEO Bernd Pischetsrieder who also serves as the current Chairman of the Supervisory Board of Audi AG. Notably it was probably Pischetsrieder who helped Axel Mees land the top job at Audi of America; Pischetsrieder is the former CEO of BMW and Mees held a number of positions at BMW during a 20 year career in both Europe and the Americas.
Officially Audi is calling it a leadership change based on dissatisfaction with its business development in the United States. The company’s target to achieve moderate growth in the US market will not be met this year, an Audi spokesman said.
Mees found himself almost immediately in the shadow of the gregarious former Audi of America VP Len Hunt whose British accent, witty comments and magnetic personality made him a favorite of the press. Hunt, who has since moved over to become VP in charge of Volkswagen of America, could often be seen on race weekends hanging out with other Audi enthusiasts. Mees just never captured the excitement or the forward looking identity of the Audi brand.
Perhaps it was just an off night for Mees in San Francisco that quickly turned into an executive’s nightmare. His delivery to the members of the press was uninspired even before he stumbled badly on the question regarding the Phaeton. In a way it reminded me of my very first encounter with Mees – it was actually his first official day of work for Audi – in Geneva for the annual Motorshow. Riding together from the airport I found him to be both credible and knowledgeable, but lacking the outward enthusiasm one would expect from the leader of Audi’s most important import market.
An Audi of America spokesperson would not confirm today whether an internal or external search had been consummated for a replacement, but did say that they “expect to release further information soon.”
In the interim that North American operation will be run by Mees’ former direct reports: Reinhard Fischer (Director of Sales), Marc Trahan (Director of Product Management & Quality), Stephen Berkov (Director of Marketing), Jim Stefan (Director of Strategy), Doug Clark (Director of Public Relations) and Michael Lembke (Director of Aftersales and Dealer Academies).