Industry Influencers

The new face of the auto lobby

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Take a look at that face. Source: Handelsblatt

Bernhard Mattes, the former head of Ford Germany, is poised to become president of the German automotive industry association VDA, inside sources told Handelsblatt. Mr. Mattes supposedly reached a final agreement last week, though similar rumors have circulated before.

The decision to put Mr. Mattes at the helm of VDA was made by an internal selection committee led by Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche and closely coordinated with leading manufacturers and suppliers. Mr. Mattes declined to comment via a spokesman for the American Chamber of Commerce, an organization Mr. Mattes has led since 2013.

Insiders say Mr. Mattes’ nomination is a victory for Mr. Zetsche, who currently serves as president of the Association of European Car Manufacturers. By bringing the 61-year-old to Berlin to lead the VDA, Mr. Zetsche is making the association less political, but there are worries that Mr. Zetsche will be pulling Mr. Mattes’ strings like a puppet in no time.

Speculation as to when current VDA President Matthias Wissmann would be replaced has been swirling for months. The 68-year-old former transport minister has led the association since 2007; in that time, Germany’s automotive industry was publicly disgraced by the Dieselgate emissions scandal and left to salvage its battered reputation. As the head of Germany’s automotive lobby, Mr. Wissmann voiced his opinion on the damaging reports of cartel-like agreements among carmakers, and called for compliance and a “zero tolerance for defects.” Mr. Zetsche criticized his response, whereas other industry players viewed Mr. Wissmann’s comments as “no-brainers.” Industry opinion seems to be that Mr. Wissmann was too powerful and hard to control for the automotive bigwigs’ tastes.

“Ford is not a role model.”

Axel Friedrich, German Environmental Agency

At the request of major carmakers, Mr. Wissmann’s contract was extended until 2018, but his critics feel that he did little, if anything, to keep politicians from turning away from the industry as the emissions scandal widened. To be fair, Mr. Wissman has been lobbying intensely on the Brussels stage to mitigate the European Commission’s emission limits. He just needs to be allowed to finish his contract.

It is entirely legitimate to elect Mr. Mattes as the car lobby’s representative. Before Mr. Wissmann, Daimler manager Bernd Gottschalk led the VDA, but failed to shine in environmental debates and was quickly replaced. Mr. Gottschalk’s predecessor, Erika Emmerich, a former boss of the German Motor Transport Authority, also dealt with accusations that the automotive industry was not doing enough to address environmental issues – this was as early as the late 1980s. Even before Ms. Emmerich, it was customary for auto industry leaders or managers to serve as the association’s president.

But with the VDA’s headquarters located in Frankfurt, a day’s drive from the German capital, the distance to politicians has long been apparent. In 2010, the VDA carved out a spot in Berlin only after representatives started attending after-hours parliamentary gatherings. It is no secret that Germany’s powerful carmakers are cozy with the political establishment in Berlin: In the past decade, German automakers and parts suppliers received more than €115 billion ($128 billion) in various forms of state assistance,

In the face of digitization and political changes, like the 30 percent carbon emission cut proposed by the EU Commission, experts think the VDA needs a politically active leader. Judging by those standards, Mr. Mattes lacks the necessary contacts in Berlin and Brussels.

And Ford, the company Mr. Mattes led from 1999 until 2016, was also accused of putting cars on the road that produced more emissions than demonstrated in the lab. “Ford is not a role model,” said Axel Friedrich of the German Environmental Agency. In the past few months, Mr. Friedrich has tested vehicles for the nonprofit German Environmental Aid, and his measurements showed Ford’s emissions were well above legal limits. In Mr. Friedrich’s opinion, this rules Mr. Mattes out. If any carmaker should represent the industry, he would rather it be BMW.

But one thing is true: Mr. Mattes faces a difficult task. Within the association, he needs to reconcile and mediate the conflicting interests among manufacturers and suppliers, while catering to an industry that has been ripped to shreds by Dieselgate and cartel allegations.

Daniel Delhaes reports on politics, transport and airlines from Handelsblatt’s Berlin office. Christine Coester adapted this story into English for Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: delhaes@handelsblatt.com

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