International Newsmaker Q&A: Walther Kiep

Jan. 1, 2020
Dr. Walther Leisler Kiep is author of Bridge Builder, which catalogs his career as a German government official, industrialist and globetrotting diplomat.
A gifted storyteller who has kept a daily diary for his entire life, Dr. Walther Leisler Kiep has written an engrossing, informative and entertaining 235-page book, entitled Bridge Builder (published by the Purdue University Press), that provides an insider’s view of his more than 60-year career as a German government official, industrialist and globetrotting diplomat.

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He served on Volkswagen’s executive supervisory board for 21 years.

Along with recounting his personal challenges and successes revolving around hard work and some fortuitous luck in numerous crisis situations, the tome describes Kiep’s endeavors within the automotive industry and is filled with accounts of his personal encounters with world leaders, celebrities and top auto executives.

“I have great respect for Walther Kiep,” says former Pres. George H.W. Bush in the liner notes. “I can think of nobody that has done more for U.S.-German relations.”

Kiep is currently honorary chairman of Atlantik-Brücke (German for “Atlantic Bridge”), a private, nonprofit and nonpartisan organization that strives to develop and maintain strong diplomatic and business relationships between Germany and the U.S.

He recently answered a series of questions for Aftermarket Business World about some of his first-hand experiences and exploits:

In 2012, China is building up its own auto industry and is the biggest worldwide market for Volkswagen. What steps did you take to help form that partnership with China early on?

In the early 1980s, Volkswagen began to look to China in order to gain a foothold there. China was not prepared to allow direct investments, but the demand for more and better cars could not be met by the few outmoded and outdated Chinese production facilities. My friend Carl Horst Hahn was VW’s head manager in North America, and succeeded in 1982 in reaching a general agreement with Shangai Automotive Industry Corp. to form a joint venture –eventually known as Shangai Volkswagen Automotive Corp. for VW’s Santana.

I was eager to get a firsthand impression of VW’s China project. I came to Shangai in March 1984 at the end of our China tour and met with a VW advance team. I inspected the planned production facilities and met some of the decision makers on the Chinese side. I visited China again in 1988; I learned that Chinese authorities were about to conclude yet another deal for a joint venture for automobile production.

The candidate on the Chinese side was First Automobile Works (FAW) in Changchun – the world’s largest manufacturer of trucks. FAW was close to signing an agreement with the American carmaker Chrysler but the party bureaucrats in Beijing were not pleased with that proposal. I was asked directly: Would Volkswagen be interested in a second joint venture? I immediately contacted Carl Hahn, who rushed with a small team to Changchun to see if FAW might be an appropriate partner for VW. In February 1991, FAW-Volkswagen Automotive Co. was formally founded as VW’s second effort to increase its share of the Chinese automobile market.

What happened regarding your role as mediator/pacifier in the Volkswagen-General Motors feud during the 1990s?

During a VW supervisory board meeting I first learned that VW’s Management Board Chairman Ferdinand Piech had hired away Jose Lopez de Arriortua, executive vice president of Detroit General Motors. I got involved in this battle of the giants early on.

As the conflict escalated over the summer of 1993, the chairman of the supervisory board, Klaus Liesen, asked me to go to the United States to determine how damaging the possible fallout might be and how it could be avoided. In mid-August, I went to Washington, D.C., where I had a series of intense meetings with old friends and acquaintances.

I met with prominent lawyer and Clinton administration adviser Vernon Jordan, whose partner Robert Strauss eventually acted as VW’s chief counsel in the United States. I had a telephone conversation with TomWyman, who was a former president of CBS television and a member of the GM board since 1985. I shared Wyman’s suggestion with Liesen and Piech immediately –that two representatives from each side needed to meet and draft an apology letter.

When Wyman and I met in London in early February, we failed to reach an agreement. Now he had a formal negotiating mandate from GM and insisted that a mere apology would not suffice.

In June, Klaus Liesen asked me again to try another effort at behind-the-scenes mediation and meet again with Tom Wyman. Wyman and I worked endlessly during the summer of 1996 to convince the main protagonists to agree to peace talks. We agreed the meeting should take place in London, with GM represented by its chairman and VW by its chairman, Klaus Liesen, and me. We agreed to compensate GM for the damages it had allegedly suffered and that all legal actions initiated on both sides would stop and all lawsuits would be withdrawn.

How did Atlantik-Brücke keep German-American relations on an even keel during the Berlin-Washington split over the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003?

In spite of German resistance to support American military efforts and prevailing anti-American sentiments, Atlantik-Brücke decided to offer its support of the United States. On January 29, 1991 we placed advertisements in a number of leading German newspapers – we appealed for demonstrations of solidarity with the United States and its troops deployed in the Gulf.

We asked Germans to provide aid and comfort the families of deployed soldiers remaining behind in Germany. We also collected a significant amount of money. We coordinated with the Army Emergency Relief Agency for optimal distribution of our funds and eventually set up an endowment in support of the education of children who had lost a parent in the Gulf War.

The significance of your “bridge building” role is demonstrated in a host of situations at home and abroad. How was your involvement demonstrated specifically in the U.S.?

After 9/11, we worried about the future of transatlantic relations, so our Young Leaders suggested we placed an advertisement in the New York Times highlighting the strong bonds of continuing friendship between the United States and Germany.

We received many responses from Americans and from Germans – over 600 persons. Then in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans, Atlantik-Brücke was meeting in North Dakota and offered its help.

In cooperation with the government of North Dakota and the German embassy in Washington, we took on sponsorship of a number of families from New Orleans and helped relocate them to North Dakota to establish a new life there. When we visited New Orleans later, we realized that more help was needed. We launched a fund drive, which brought over $1 million to help rebuild the gymnasium of the Lusher Charter School in New Orleans.

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