UPDATE 1-Volkswagen’s top US executive is stepping down immediately – Reuters

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(Corrects surname as Horn, not Brown in paragraph 16)

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON, March 9 Volkswagen AG’s top U.S.
executive is stepping down nearly six months after the German
automaker admitted to installing software to allow 580,000
diesel U.S. vehicles to emit excess emissions, the company said
on Wednesday.

Michael Horn, who has been president and chief executive
officer of Volkswagen Group of America since 2014, is leaving by
mutual agreement “to pursue other opportunities effective
immediately,” VW said.

Horn, 54, could not immediately be reached. A lawyer for
Horn did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

The German automaker said on an interim basis, Hinrich J.
Woebcken, a former BMW executive who ran global purchasing among
other jobs, is filling Horn’s job. In January, VW named Woebcken
as head of VW’s North American region, effective April 1.

Horn sent an email to employees thanking them for supporting
him and for pulling together during the crisis.

Horn’s departure comes as VW continues to negotiate with
California, the Justice Department and Environmental Protection
Agency on possible fixes or buybacks for the diesel vehicles
that emit up to 40 times legally allowable pollution. It faces a
March 24 deadline to tell a federal judge whether it has an
acceptable fix.

A top California official told state lawmakers Tuesday that
VW may only be able to mount a partial fix and may have to pay
to mitigate the harm caused by allowing vehicles to remain on
the road.

Volkswagen faces an ongoing Justice Department criminal
investigation. The Justice Department sued VW in January seeking
up to $46 billion for violating environmental regulations and
sent VW a civil subpoena under a bank fraud law.

Alan Brown, general manager of Hendrick Volkswagen in
Frisco, Texas who is president of the National Volkswagen
Dealer Advisory Council, praised Horn’s tenure at VW and said he
had talked to Horn over the last three days about his departure.
Brown told Reuters Horn had been offered other jobs at
Volkswagen outside the United States, but declined to take them.

Brown said it was critical VW maintain the strategy of
growing U.S. volume and noted dealers have strongly supported
the automaker through the crisis.

“We are not working out of gas stations any more,” Brown
said, noting VW’s about U.S. 650 dealers have invested $1
billion over the last decade in facilities.

Brown is flying to Germany on Sunday and staying through
Wednesday for meetings with VW executives in the aftermath of
Horn’s departure.

VW brand U.S. sales are down 14 percent this year after
falling 5 percent last year. VW still faces a stop sale on all
new diesel vehicles.

Brown said it was important VW stick with the business plan
it approved to expand U.S. sales by quickly refreshing and
redesigning vehicles.

U.S. VW dealers “don’t want a handout. They want a chance to
win,” Brown said. He said VW should scrap the idea of
positioning itself as a “near premium brand” and return to its
roots in the 1960s of selling mass market vehicles like the
iconic Beetle.

Dennis Gaudet, a New Hampshire VW dealer, said Horn was
“probably the most popular (head) we’ve had as long as I’ve been
a dealer” and added he knew the American market “better than

During the initial response to the crisis, Horn was VW’s
public face in the United States, apologizing days after the
scandal became public and testifying before Congress.

“Let’s be clear about this: our company was dishonest – with
the EPA and the California Air Resources Board – and with all of
you. And in my German words: We totally screwed up. We must fix
those cars,” Horn said on Sept. 21.

In October, Horn told a U.S. House of Representatives panel
that VW’s supervisory board and top leadership did not
intentionally order the cheating, but said it was the work of a
few individuals.

Horn told Congress he had no knowledge of the cheating.

Horn joined VW in 1990 and held a series of jobs, including
VW sales for Europe, before he became CEO based at VW’s U.S.
headquarters in Herndon, Virginia following the resignation of
his predecessor, Jonathan Browning who abruptly resigned after
VW brand sales fell in 2013. Sales fell despite an aggressive
plan announced in 2008 by VW to triple sales in 10 years.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; additional reporting by
Alexandria Sage in San Francisco; Editing by Chris Reese,
Alistair Bell and Bernard Orr)

UPDATE 1-Volkswagen’s top US executive is stepping down immediately – Reuters