Walter de Silva: Italy’s loss, VW’s gain

Walter de Silva: Italy's loss, VW's gain

Walter de Silva is finally getting the recognition he deserves from his homeland.

The Volkswagen Group styling czar this month was awarded an honorary degree in design from Bologna University. It comes 16 years after he, like so many Italians, he had to leave the country to achieve global success in his field.

De Silva’s departure could have been prevented. In 1998 he was looking for a new challenge after leading design at Fiat’s Alfa Romeo brand for 12 years. He asked Fiat’s CEO at the time, Paolo Cantarella, whether a promotion was coming. Cantarella said de Silva’s future was with Alfa.

At 47, de Silva knew he could climb higher. He joined PSA/Peugeot Citroen to head a new advanced design center tailored to his exact specifications.

Then he got a call from Ferdinand Piech, who was then VW Group CEO. Piech wanted de Silva to lead design at the Seat brand.

Today, Seat is one of eight car brands, three truck brands and one motorcycle brand under de Silva’s control. His empire of design centers stretches around the world and employs almost 1,700 people.

An even more telling sign of the level of respect de Silva has earned was that VW Group CEO Martin Winterkorn and the company’s chief engineer, Ulrich Hackenberg, both gave up their Saturdays to be in Bologna for their colleague’s big day.

Italy is desperately trying to lure back young, talented professionals who have been forced to leave because of the country has so few jobs for up-and-coming 20-somthings and 30-somethings. In April, 43.3 percent of the young people in Italy were unemployed, almost twice the European Union average.

At 63, de Silva is not in the age bracket of the people currently being asked to return home. Nevertheless, his story is familiar in Italy because the country’s loss has been VW Group’s gain for nearly two decades.