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Piech share sale threatens family ownership at Volkswagen

By Michael Finnigan

Former Volkswagen chairman Ferdinand Piech is in talks to sell the majority of his shares in the holding company Porsche SE in a move that could threaten its future as a family-run business.

The news comes several weeks after Piech stirred controversy when he allegedly told Volkswagen's internal investigators that he confronted former chief executive Martin Winterkorn over the emissions scandal in March 2015.

With the threat of a lawsuit, the 79-year-old is seeking to cut remaining ties with the automaker by offloading his stake in Porsche Automobil Holding SE, the holding company that controls the VW Group via a 52% stake of voting stock.

While Piech's relatives have first refusal on the sale, an individual familiar with the matter told Bloomberg he could sell to an outsider if they fail to agree terms—the sale would reduce the family's ownership stake below a majority.

At present it is still unforeseeable whether the aforesaid changes in the shareholder structure of Porsche Automobil Holding SE will in fact occur," the group said in a statement, referring to the changes that may deny the Piech and Porsche families majority ownership.

Stuttgart-headquartered Porsche Automobil Holding SE confirmed this week that Piech is looking to sell a significant proportion of his 14.7% stake (worth around €1.1 billion or $1.2 billion) to his relatives. 

The Piech and Porsche families have a long-standing feud: in 2009, Wolfgang Porsche (pictured right), chairman of the supervisory board of Porsche Automobil Holding SE, and cousin of Ferdinand Piech, attempted unsuccessfully to takeover Volkswagen.

After Volkswagen countered and swallowed Porsche, the Porsche family became the largest shareholders in the German automaker. The sale of shares by Piech will bring to a close the saga but may also jeopardise the family's majority share if they cannot agree to terms.

Regardless of the potential sale of shares by Piech, Porsche Automobil Holding SE revealed its has return to profit with €1.37 billion ($1.5 billion) in 2016, despite the €308 million ($333 million) loss brought about by Volkswagen's diesel-emissions scandal.

“The year 2016 was more for Volkswagen than dealing with the diesel crisis,” Porsche SE non-family chief executive Hans Dieter Poetsch said at a press conference in Stuttgart, Germany.

“The group has set the course for the biggest transformation in its history.”

The sale of shares by Piech could help Volkswagen refresh its out-dated governance structure, which gives inordinate weight to privileged shareholders: the two families own 52.2% of Volkswagen's voting stock, despite only owning 15.4% of its economic interests.

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