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At Mahle, a Leading Auto Parts Maker, a Quiet Search for Successor to Longtime CEO Junker

Heinz K. Junker, chief executive of Mahle, a Stuttgart piston maker. Source Esslinger Zeitung
Heinz K. Junker, chief executive of Mahle, a Stuttgart piston maker.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Mahle CEO Heinz Junker built the auto parts supplier into a world leader, but his retirement is a challenge.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Mahle is expected to generate sales of €10 billion ($13.4 billion) in 2014.
    • The Stuttgart-headquartered company has 64,000 employees.
    • It has 140 plants worldwide, including near Detroit and Charleston, South Carolina.
  • Audio

    Audio

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With all due respect, the workers at Mahle, an auto parts maker in Stuttgart, just refer to him as “the professor.”

For 18 years, Heinz K. Junker, the Mahle chief executive, has been at the helm of the German auto parts maker. He knows every detail of the company’s global operations and makes every decision. Mahle is Junker. And Junker, after nearly two decades, is Mahle.

But for some time, a provocative question has circulated through the company’s headquarters, one the patriarch has not answered: When will he step down?

On December 16, Mr. Junker will turn 65 and his contract is supposed to end next spring. Handelsblatt has learned from company insiders that he likely will retire at that time. Mr. Junker, however, wouldn’t confirm the speculation. “I do not make the decision on this,” he said. “That is something for the supervisory board.”

A year ago, Mr. Junker said he still enjoyed his work, but there might also be good alternatives to Mahle’s helm.

But for some time, a provocative question has been circulating through company headquarters at Mahle, one that the patriarch, Heinz K. Junker, has not answered so far: When will he step down?

A supervisory board member told Handelsblatt there would be a change in leadership.

“Internally it is a clear thing,” said one board member, who declined to be identified during the personnel search.

When Mr. Junker does step down it will be the end of an era. The engineer with a doctoral degree is the senior-most chief executive in Germany’s automotive parts industry. Under his leadership, Mahle was transformed from a medium-sized German business to a global company with an annual profit of €10 billion ($13.4 billion).

He was born in 1949 in Wegburg, in western Germany’s Rhineland, the region along the Rhine River. He studied and received a doctorate at RWTH Aachen, one of the world’s top universities.

 

Mahle, Stuttgart piston maker. Source Mahle
Mahle, one of Germany’s leading auto parts maker, is looking for a new chief executive to replace Heinz K. Junker, who transformed the Stuttgart piston maker into a major global exporter. Source: Mahle

 

After college, he joined TRW Automotive as chief engineer for product development in 1986. Eventually he received an honorary professorship in 1994 at Ruhr University in Bochum.

Since 1996, he has been Mahle’s chief executive. Amid car models and souvenirs in his Stuttgart office, he looks out on the city’s historic Wilhelma gardens. But his gaze goes further. In fact, Mr. Junker’s greatest coup is about 2 miles away, where the Behr air conditioning plant is headquartered.

When Mr. Junker does step down it will be the end of an era...Under his leadership, Mahle was transformed from a medium-sized German business to a global company with an annual profit of €10 billion ($13.4 billion).

Mahle’s acquisition of its proud neighbor caused a sensation in 2013.

With the merger, which is still awaiting antitrust approval, Mr. Junker catapulted his company to fourth among the Germany’s largest auto part suppliers. Only Bosch, Continental and ZF Friedrichshafen are bigger. The merger was also strategically clever. Products from Behr, such as air-conditioning technology and cooling systems, will be vital as more electric cars are made and sold.

Debate about Mr. Junker’s successor is already raging.

One top candidate is Jörg Stratmann. The 45-year-old has been chief executive at Behr since 2013. Before that, the industrial engineering graduate had been at Siemens for 13 years and for a short time at Continental. The integration of Behr into Mahle has been seen as extremely delicate given the different corporate cultures.

Whether Stratmann or someone else, the new Mahle chief executive must lead the company forward and merge Behr and Mahle. Also, new markets with mutual benefits to both companies must be developed.

Mr. Junker has set the direction for Mahle’s future. He allowed for the development of smaller, gas-saving motors as a transition technology. He built the necessary turbochargers for a joint venture with Bosch.

So on the one hand, he leaves behind a clear corporate strategy for his successor.

On the other, the company’s management structure up to now has been tailored to Mr. Junker. He is the sole face of Mahle. His successor will be hard-pressed to play such an influential role in the tradition-rich company.

 

Martin W. Buchenau and Andreas Doernfelder are reporters at Handelsblatt. They can be reached at buchenau@handelsblatt.com and a.doernfelder@vhb.de.

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