Death of an Auto Visionary

Robert Koehler Picture alliance
Robert Koehler has died age 66.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    With the death of Robert Koehler, Germany has lost a visionary whose work with carbon applications was critical to the development of BMW’s i3 car.

  • Facts


    • Robert Koehler was born in on Janury 12, 1949 in Munich, and died on May 17, 2015.
    • Mr. Koehler’s work in developing carbon applications was crucial for BMW’s i3 car.
    • Mr. Koehler worked for SGL Group, an international producer of carbon fibers, for most of his career.
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Robert Koehler’s entered the world of business with a bang – or at least a provocation.

He had just turned 40 when he presented his plans for a restructuring of Hoechst to the chemical group’s bosses in Frankfurt. The managers shot him down. They thought his plans for a reorganization were just too radical.

A little later, though, Hoechst followed his vision and spun off the production of electrodes for the metal industry.

When the question arose as to who should head up the new company, Mr. Koehler’s name naturally came up.

BMW’s showcase project, the i3 electric car, for example, consists mostly of material that was produced in the SGL plants.

Mr. Koehler took up the challenge in 1992 and, operating under the name SGL Carbon in Wiesbaden, he developed the business to a degree few could have imagined.

Using his experience with dealing with carbon, his team researched new applications for carbon fiber. Woven into carbon parts, it made its way into the automotive world.

BMW’s showcase project, the i3 electric car, for example, consists mostly of material that was produced in the SGL plants.

Without Mr. Koehler’s perseverance, the SGL Group would have never become what it is today.

Susanne Klatten, a major shareholder in BMW, is so excited about the light material that she acquired shares in SGL herself.

Mr. Koehler’s relationship to Ms. Klatten wasn’t always easy. At the end of the day, he got along better with guys like Martin Winterkorn, head of VW, who were, like himself, down to earth. He liked to talk business with them, after work, over a pint.

Mr. Koehler came from southern Germany and was proud of his Bavarian roots – perhaps because he drew his informal way, and down-to-work style, from that background. Those who worked with him recalled his outbursts of temper that could be heard in offices some doors away. His people never took it the wrong way; they knew he had their backs if anything went seriously awry.

A business management expert, Mr. Koehler was suspicious of simple conclusions. He was a meticulous worker who even took bundles of files home with him on the weekend and on vacation.

Mr. Koehler was an independent thinker, who preferred to rub people up the wrong way than follow a trend.

He could be tenacious but not obstinate. If he saw he was in the wrong, he would switch in the moment he recognized it. That’s how it was with the issue of shareholders’ rights, for example. Mr. Koehler was an advocate of the principle of “shareholder value,” and wanted to give investors more scope. But when he saw that many investors had little interest in company strategy, he changed his point of view again.

Later in his life, Mr. Koehler came to distrust the capital market. He believed that companies also occasionally need to be left alone in order to move forward.

After his reluctant departure from his life’s work, SGL Carbon, at the close of 2013, Mr. Koehler worked at revitalizing Heideldruck as its supervisory board chairman.

Mr. Koehler was also a member of the supervisory boards of Klöckner, Freudenberg und Benteler International.

Mr. Koehler passed away after a short illness last Sunday in Wiesbaden at the age of 66.


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Handelsblatt’s Martin Murphy covers the auto industry. To contact the author:

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