APRIL 2 2009 08:22h
Volkswagen`s presses thud and hiss as they crush metal into shape, orange sparks fly and workers whistle to music on the radio.
Volkswagen's presses thud and hiss as they crush metal into shape, orange sparks fly and workers whistle to music on the radio as they screw on headlights and radiators.
Few towns rely as heavily on the auto economy as Wolfsburg in north Germany. Purpose-built on Hitler's orders in 1938 to make the "peoples' car", about half the town's workers have a job directly linked to VW. Yet the mood is far from depressed.
"Things are positive, order books are bulging," said Claudio Gravina, who has worked in several departments at VW's Wolfsburg plant. "There's no panic."
So far, a government bonus scheme has been shoring up demand -- German new car registrations jumped 21.5 percent in February and it was one of only two western European markets to grow, according to the European auto industry association, ACEA.
But another factor underpins the confidence. With some 178,000 workers in Germany, VW is too big to fail and the town knows it.
"VW is so crucial that no-one would let it collapse. The consequences would be unimaginable," Siegfried Kayser, head of Wolfsburg's Chambers of Industry and Commerce, told Reuters.
Among top VW models are the Golf, Passat, Touran and Jetta although its best known is probably the Beetle, originally the "peoples' car", or "Strength-through-joy car" which became a symbol of the hippie era as the "Love Bug".
In Wolfsburg's centre of concrete, grey buildings -- typical of German towns built up in the decades after World War Two -- the cafes are busy and shops are full.
"So far I can't see the financial crisis you read about in the papers," said baker Katja Hering, whose shop relies largely on VW employees for custom. "Next year might be bad but we've had our ups and downs before and we'll get through."
NO PLAN B
Wolfsburg is defined by VW. The factory -- which VW says is the world's biggest auto plant under one roof -- is big enough to house the principality of Monaco. Its brown brick facade and tall chimneys dominate the skyline.
Wolfsburg's main shopping street is named after Ferdinand Porsche, whose "peoples' car" design caught the imagination of Hitler. VW sponsors Germany's top league Wolfsburg football club; schools and colleges bear the name of VW or Porsche.
After World War Two, during which VW employed forced labourers for the Nazi war effort, the town flourished as the carmaker became synonymous with West Germany's economic miracle.
Now, the factory, which can make 3,400 cars a day, employs around 44,000 people. Another 11,500 work at suppliers in Wolfsburg, according to town statistics.
"Wolfsburg wouldn't be here without VW," said Kayser at the Chamber of Commerce. "There can't be a Plan B if the unimaginable were to happen to VW."
Investors have long criticised VW's above-average labour costs and have called on the state of Lower Saxony, which owns a 20 percent stake, to loosen its grip and allow a takeover.
A political battle is raging between the German government and the EU over a plan by Porsche to take full control of VW. The sports car maker has raised its direct voting stake to just over 50 percent and said that could rise to 75 percent this year although under existing rules, Lower Saxony could veto that.
But others see VW as a vindication of the German social market model, which shuns the more aggressive shareholder-value focus of Anglo-Saxon capitalism.
They point to the problems being faced by General Motors and other U.S. car makers and say Wolfsburgers are fortunate compared with workers at GM's German unit Opel, which is seeking billions in state aid and faces an uncertain future.
Wolfsburg mayor Rolf Schnellecke says state involvement has guaranteed a social approach among VW workers.
"VW has always been aware of its social responsibility and taken steps to avoid redundancies," Schnellecke told Reuters.
ESCAPING VW'S SHADOW
German government policies to save jobs are also helping. The government is, for example, subsidising companies that put workers on short time and avoid layoffs. In February, around 15,000 Wolfsburg workers were on short time.
VW is also the biggest beneficiary of a measure in the government's stimulus package offering 2,500 euros ($3,304) to people who scrap old cars and buy new, fuel efficient vehicles.
"(Investing in the) VW group is the best place to be to benefit from the scrapping incentives-related boom on the German car market," said Sal. Oppenheim analysts in a research note, citing VW's high exposure to Germany and the small car segment.
Luxury auto makers BMW and Daimler are feeling the brunt of the downturn as consumers opt for cheaper cars.
But VW's relative strength cannot mask underlying problems. Chief Executive Martin Winterkorn has warned VW faces one of the toughest years ever and has said he expects vehicle sales, revenues and earnings to decline.
"Wolfsburg isn't immune to the global crisis, we are not an island," said Schnellecke. "The incentives are keeping us going for now but the big question is what happens after that."
The town has sought to reduce its dependence on VW, which also owns Audi, Skoda and Seat, by building up services.
"We have known since the 1990s that jobs in the auto industry are heading down rather than up and we have branched out into other areas," said Schnellecke, a Wolfsburger by birth.
The service sector makes up 28 percent of Wolfsburg's economy, up from about 16 percent 20 years ago, but that is still a far lower share than in other cities, says Kayser.
Wolfsburg has tried to become a regional tourist centre and now has a science museum, art gallery and sports facilities.
But all roads lead back to VW. One of the top draws is the Autostadt, a VW theme park boasting 2 million visitors a year, who include car fanatics, buyers and children.
"Wolfsburg is where Volkswagen eats and sleeps," said Kayser. "It's impossible to free ourselves from such a collossus."