Volkswagen 'planned to poach en masse': Special task force of computer experts was created to transfer GM information, German court is told

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The Independent Online
GENERAL MOTORS accused Volkswagen in court yesterday of carrying out a plan to poach en masse its senior executives which, had it fully succeeded, would have been a 'catastrophe' for the US corporation's European activities.

GM said that Volkswagen had prepared a special task force of computer experts for the arrival of the newly won employees so that 10 years of GM know-how and information could be immediately transferred.

In his opening submission to a Frankfurt court, Heinz Wetterkamp, representing GM, said that the newly arrived executives dealt in their first days at Volkswagen with large quantities of confidential GM documents.

'When people begin a new job they usually take time to work themselves in,' Mr Wetterkamp said.

'Instead, when these senior executives arrived at VW in Wolfsburg, they were put in the Burozentrum Ost with a special computer system, where they found the task force ready. They did not look around to see how VW did things. All they did was put over entire amounts of information, everything they had learnt at GM.'

General Motors is seeking an employment ban on seven of its former executives who went to Volkswagen in March 1993 to join Jose Ignacio Lopez de Arriortua, GM's former purchasing chief.

The departure of the seven must be seen, Mr Wetterkamp argued, in the context of a 'systematic, massive poaching campaign' in which VW tried to hire 28 GM employees.

The American company lost a preliminary hearing late last year on technical grounds, but yesterday's proceedings marked the beginning of a full hearing in which evidence is being considered for the first time.

Although the employment ban case is formally separate from criminal investigations in Germany and the US into alleged industrial espionage by Mr Lopez and some of his former GM colleagues, Mr Wetterkamp liberally wove claims of document theft and breach of trust into his opening statement.

He painted a picture of a deliberate campaign by VW to acquire from its competitor the top men and information that made up a model purchasing system in the motor industry.

In his outline of the dramatic events last March, Mr Wetterkamp said that on the day Mr Lopez signed the VW contract, the 9th, he handed over to Jens Neumann, VW board member in charge of personnel, a list of GM people he wanted.

On 17 March, the day after Mr Lopez arrived at VW, a company plane was sent to Spain to pick up 15-20 boxes. These contained GM documents that were 'absolutely confidential, firm secrets'.

On 22 March Mr Lopez spoke to seven of his close GM colleagues, who all joined him over the following two days. 'VW's top management in purchasing was made free for the people from GM and (its European subsidiary) Opel,' Mr Wetterkamp said.

Replying for Volkswagen, Jurgen Kicker said of the departure of Mr Lopez and his seven colleagues from GM to VW: 'It may well have been an unusual case, but there is not a single element in the documentation to prove there was systematic, planned, convention- breaking enticement.'

He said the seven executives felt lost and isolated at GM after Mr Lopez left and asked to follow him. The court is to meet again on 2 February, either to hand down a ruling or to decide to hear witnesses.