When Georg Schaeffler died in 1996, his wife Maria-Elisabeth Schaeffler-Thumann and son Georg F.W. Schaeffler took over as sole owners of the Schaeffler Group, the German manufacturer of bearings used in automotive, aerospace and other industries. The mother and son have presided over extensive investments in future technology and huge acquisitions – including the near disastrous takeover of the car-parts and tire-maker Continental.
The company managed to reduce its debt and survived. Today, Schaeffler has revenues of more than €11 billion ($12.7 billion) and around 80,000 employees. It is one of the largest automotive and technology suppliers in the world.
Mrs. Schaeffler-Thumann spoke with Axel Höpner at Schaeffler headquarters in Herzogenaurach, Germany.
Mrs. Schaeffler-Thumann, in 2009, when the company faced financial ruin after its costly acquisition of Continental, workers demonstrated their support here beneath your office window. Was that one of the most moving moments in your business life?
It was certainly one of the most moving. But there was another such moment, when my son and I were at a motorway restaurant between Frankfurt and Nuremberg. When we stepped outside, there were 30 Schaeffler trainees who had just come from a singing performance. They greeted us with a loud “hello!” and offered us a serenade. Each of them was wearing a button saying “we are Schaeffler too.”
Would you repeat what you did back then?
In general, it’s important to look forward. That always includes risks. And there was an industrial logic behind that step, which today is more important than ever. I believe that, overall, the world has learned from the 2008 collapse of Lehman Brothers – and that some things wouldn’t happen now like they did then.
I also believe that today we have a different reputation. We enjoy more recognition and respect. At that time, many people thought, “they’re in a little bit over their heads.” But today we have more than 80,000 employees and are one of the most important suppliers in the world. We’re in the vanguard during an exciting era of innovations, such as electric cars and hybrids.
Was the general lack of familiarity with the company also due to the fact that it was closed-off?
That’s correct. But that was my deceased husband’s creed: “Above all, not in public!” The customers who worked with us knew us and were aware of the quality of the company. But we tried to keep out of the media spotlight. Times have changed. There should be a fair interplay between companies and the media ― with my emphasis on fair.
We complement each other. My son is somewhat reserved, I am more open.
When your husband died, you took over the family firm almost overnight. Did you have to do that?
I didn’t have to do anything. I originally wanted to become a doctor. That was my dream profession. I was especially interested in physics. I wanted to continue my studies, but my husband said I had other responsibilities. So I thought it would make sense to study business administration. But he didn’t want that either. He said that I could learn much better from him directly.
You now head the company with your son, who previously pursued his own career in the United States. Was that always the plan?
The enterprise is managed by Klaus Rosenfeld, an outstanding chief executive officer, together with a highly qualified management board. My son and I are active shareholders and sit on the supervisory board. It was always my wish that someday he would assume responsibility.
We complement each other. He contributes his knowledge. My son is somewhat reserved, I am more open. We can be contented and thankful that we understand each other so well.
Did your son have a choice?
Yes, all possibilities were open to him. I would never impose a task on him. I know that things are different in some other family firms. I consider him to be excellently qualified and well educated. He has all the freedom in the world. But he has also learned responsibility ― for this reason, I am optimistic for the future.
So you don’t fear that someday he might sell the company?
No! (laughing) The mere thought shakes me up.
Is it through education that parents teach their children to want to preserve the family legacy?
I think so ― that’s what my son has always experienced. Through my deceased husband and myself, he has seen that the company was our lifeblood. We have a responsibility, today, for 80,000 employees.
I admit that I was a strict mother. I myself had a strict mother. He has never experienced anything else than the fact that for us, the company is top priority. And he has taken on that perspective himself.
In the case of diverging opinions, are you still the strict mother?
No, he is 50 now. There’s no more room for a strict mother! But that’s actually not an issue. I can’t think of a single case where we had truly contrary opinions.
How would you describe Schaeffler’s secret for success?
We are better ― I say this quite candidly. We are highly innovative, efficient and globally oriented. We set out on an international path quite early on. That was an essential step. The company was founded by the Schaeffler brothers in 1946. In 1958, they expanded to Brazil, in 1964 to the United States and in 1995 to China, where today we have 10,000 employees. When a customer comes from someplace or other, we are already established there.
Would you prefer to have someone directly from the family in charge of day-to-day operations?
That is not an option. Unfortunately, I don’t have a larger family. I envy those who do. And so I am all the more happy that since August, with Jürgen Thumann, I have a husband who not only loves me but also supports me in an advisory function.
Axel Höpner is head of the Handelsblatt office in Munich. To contact him: firstname.lastname@example.org.