On July 1, 2021, Carl Hahn will be 95 years old. The former Volkswagen CEO looks back on his past and shares his vision of the future.
His age doesn’t show. At 95, Prof. Dr. Carl H. Hahn exhibits the wit and spontaneity of a much younger man. With perceptiveness, he comments on things happening around him and jokes with people in the room, less than half his age, with an impish, almost youthful smile that says, “Didn’t see that coming, did you?”
No, you don’t see it coming, because Hahn exudes dignity and respectability. His responses are quick and thought out. No doubt, Hahn, the former CEO of Volkswagen and driver of the expansion in the USA and China, the founder of Volkswagen Saxony, the acquirer of brands like Skoda and Seat and the savior of Audi, has an experience of life that is incomparable. Even today, his continues working in his office at the Wolfsburg Art Museum, where he counsels various institutions. He is also an honorary professor.
He was the one who created the art museum and talks about it proudly. Apart from the actual exhibit, the building contains another notable collection. Hahn decorates his office with memorabilia from his career, each one telling a story worth listening to.
A Job at the Museum
There are the larger, clearly historical pieces. A drawing of the first Golf, made personally by its designer, Giorgetto Giugiaro. Photos of Hahn meeting with Pope John Paul II, Michael Gorbachev or Chinese Prime Minister, Li Peng. Models of important vehicle models, stemming from his long career. Or the Chinese award honoring the “Man of the Year 2018”. On a wall next to his desk is a legendary, but scarcely known cylinder head. When an Audi 5000 established a speed record at the American Talladega Speedway in 1986, its engine was fitted with such a component.
There are other items, too, that not everyone will recognize. An unimposing photo shows Hahn’s life savers, as he calls them: bodyguards. “But that’s not what this is about,” says Hahn. They picked him up every morning at seven o’clock sharp, for jogging, no matter how short the preceding night had been. Exercise has always been good for him. That’s why, even today, he does as much of it as possible. For example, he uses a small trampoline in a room next to his office.
Hahn, the International Strategist
Hahn also values his mental fitness and strategic vision. Very early on, he decided to get a “European education”. He studied in France, Italy, Great Britain and Switzerland. His goal: distinguishing himself from his contemporaries with focused knowledge and diverse experience. Hahn also appreciated exploration in his private life. He traveled all over Europe with his motorbike, a DKW RT 125.
Carl Hahn’s professional life turned out to be equally international. In 1959, he went to the USA, to establish Volkswagen of America. In San Francisco, the hometown of his wife, Marisa Lea Hahn, he was particularly impressed by people with a Chinese background. “They were extraordinary,” Hahn recalls. “They preserved their culture, while being incredibly successful economically.” While creating clever marketing campaigns for the Beetle and the Microbus, his observations began to form the basis of Volkswagen’s expansion to China, years later.
Early on, Hahn had a feeling that Shanghai Volkswagen Automotive Co., Ltd. (founded in 1984 and later named SAIC Volkswagen Automotive Co., Ltd.) and FAW Volkswagen (established in 1991) would one day supply the largest automotive market in the world. “It was possible to hope for it and expect it, but, of course, there were many questions marks attached to that.”
Hahn, the Visionary
With legs crossed, his hands resting in his lap and a steady gaze, Hahn speaks critically about his own career. In retrospect, he says, it is difficult to understand why, in the existing structures, the advantages of electromobility had remained unrecognized for such a long time, particularly with respect to comfort and economy. For fifty years, he had thought about this topic. But now, Hahn drives to his office in a fully electric car. His white ID3 is parked in front of the building.
According to Hahn, cars will continue to develop in the future, independent of the drive system being used. “Today’s cars represent a person’s biggest investment, except for a house or an apartment.” Soon, this investment will go away completely and be replaced by a different mobility model. “You won’t have to buy the car of the future. You will simply have it, whenever and wherever you need it, at the touch of a button.”
Hahn speaks this sentence with a conviction that makes the future seem clear and certain. Calmly but assertively, he draws a picture of variable mobility that is not connected to the idea of ownership, but instead merely pursues the goal of transport. This notion is very different from the millions of vehicles that left countless factories on the way to their new owners during his tenure. Hahn is still a disruptive thinker.
Hahn, the Family Man
This attitude made Hahn successful in his day. However, to him, photos of celebrities, precious items or symbolic milestones are not the most important items in his office. His favorite memory hangs directly next to the entrance. It’s a photo of his family. Every time the conversation strays from the main topic, it always comes back to his four children and nine grandchildren, how they are scattered across the globe, what opportunities they enjoy and how easily they can communicate with each other. And how much he misses his late wife.
Hahn celebrates his 95th birthday with the town of Wolfsburg, followed by a private party with his family. “But this will not be a wild drinking event. Instead, it will be an expression of appreciation for being such a great family.” Hahn always brings it back to the bigger picture.