Setting up an agreement to agree was a smart move.
The Porsche and Piëch families, which control a majority in Volkswagen, Europe’s largest automaker, set up a contractual agreement not to split their votes on Volkswagen’s supervisory board.
That means they always have to agree on a common position in advance of board meetings to ensure unanimity. Without that provision, the clan, now in its third generation, would have been hard-pressed to seize and cement its control over Volkswagen.
Progress hasn’t always been as smooth for three other old European dynasties that control car companies: the owners of French group PSA Peugeot Citroën, Germany’s BMW and Italy’s Fiat.
Whether hunger for power, honor or infighting, the families’ needs did not always converge with those of the carmakers.
Last year, the Peugeot family ceded majority ownership of the auto manufacturer it had controlled for eight generations, following public disagreements that were damaging the company.
Thierry Peugeot was forced to quit as supervisory board chairman in July 2014 after 12 years at the helm, when he voiced public dissent over the automaker’s capital tie-up with Chinese car company Dongfeng Motor and the French government.
The move came after the family earlier in 2014 reduced its holding to 14 percent from just over 25 percent, paving the way for Dongfeng and the French government to each buy 14 percent stakes.
Peugeot urgently needed the capital injection because it had been suffering losses and a decline in market share as a result of the European economic downturn. Mr. Peugeot had fought bitterly to preserve his family’s influence but his cousins overruled him.
The Peugeot family, among the wealthiest in France, is now one of three equal shareholders alongside Dongfeng and the French government. The supervisory board is led by industrialist Louis Gallois, a confidant of the government who had previously run French state railway SNCF and aircraft builder Airbus.
Mr. Peugeot had led PSA to the brink by putting his family’s honor over the company’s interests. He obstructed important strategic decisions such as deepening links with other automakers and building plants abroad, especially in China, which were needed to achieve economies of scale and stay competitive.
By contrast, the Quandt family, major shareholder of Germany’s premium carmaker BMW, is famously hands-off when it comes to management.
When Herbert Quandt died in 1982, his stake was divided up among his wife Johanna (16.7 percent), daughter Susanne Klatten (12.6 percent) and son Stefan (17.4 percent). This triumvirate with its 46.7 percent holding is committed to long-term stability and absolute unanimity.
Susanne is happy with an ordinary seat on the supervisory board, Stefan is deputy chairman and the two of them have traditionally let a former BMW chief executive head the board. This has been Joachim Milberg since 2004. He is due in May to hand the reins to current Chief Executive Norbert Reithofer, who will be succeeded by head of production Harald Krüger — without any friction or problems, as usual.
Italy’s Agnelli auto dynasty owes its continued power at Fiat to John Jacob Philip Elkann, the favorite grandson of former Fiat patriarch Giovanni Agnelli, as well as to Chief Executive Sergio Marchionne.
Mr. Elkann appointed Mr. Marchionne in 2004, one year after he inherited his grandfather’s stake. At the time, Fiat was on the brink of bankruptcy.
Mr. Marchionne was given free rein. He rescued the company, making the fourth and fifth Agnelli generations €3 billion, or $3.2 billion, richer and ensuring that the family could increase its stake to 46.5 percent from 30 percent.