On the eve of the Detroit Auto Show in January, Volkswagen’s new chief executive, Matthias Müller, appeared to embody all that is wrong with capitalism today.
It was Mr. Müller’s first trip in the United States since U.S. environmental watchdogs accused the carmaker of cheating emissions standards with sophisticated software installed in around half-a-million diesel vehicles.
Americans felt deeply betrayed. They expected the head of Volkswagen to show humility, shame and regret for the carmaker’s transgressions.
But such expectations were soon quashed. Addressing several hundred journalists at Fishbone’s restaurant, Mr. Müller, the 62-year-old chief executive delivered a long, dispassionate, detached statement in choppy English. Although the word “sorry” was uttered, this was anything but a sincere apology.
Read stoically from a piece of paper, while tenaciously avoiding eye contact, Mr. Müller’s monologue seemed more like a lecture from some tired pedant.
Surrounded by reporters after his prepared remarks, the boss of Europe’s mightiest industrial company then really put his foot in his mouth.
Responding to a question from a correspondent at U.S. broadcaster National Pubic Radio about how the carmaker could change the perception that VW had “an ethical problem that’s deep inside the company,” a visibly irritated Mr. Müller countered, “I cannot understand why you say that.”
Rather than conceding Volkswagen’s deception, the chief executive claimed, “We didn’t lie.”
As surprising as it was, Mr. Müller’s performance apparently was no aberration from VW’s code of ethics for executives. Just the opposite: It appears to have been a reflection of their ongoing audacity.