Auto supplier Schaeffler’s big race into a future of electrification

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Gutzmer confides that he feels great pride as he prepares to retire, stepping down after helping Schaeffler’s management reposition the company for a new era of technology.

But after he leaves, the industry’s future is far from certain.

This summer, global consulting and forecasting firm AlixPartners published a less-than-comforting outlook on auto industry electrification. It calculated that the world’s automakers are currently spending $255 billion on electrification. That will result in the creation of more than 200 new electric models, “many of which will lose money,” the AlixPartners report concluded.

At the same time, consumers told researchers that they would be willing to pay a premium of about $2,300 to acquire an electric vehicle — far less than what current EV options cost.

Such outlooks have not dented the industry’s enthusiasm. Audi alone, Schaeffler’s partner in the Formula E racing series, said late last year that it has earmarked $16 billion for introducing EVs by 2023.

To add more suspense, that timeline is rolling out as suppliers face tougher financial times as the industry leans into a downturn in key markets, including North America.

Last year, Schaeffler reported flat revenue for its global automotive business, the biggest part of the German company. And net income for the entire corporation dropped 10 percent to about €881 million ($977 million). Part of Schaeffler’s reality is a growing overhead, including the addition of more than 2,300 employees in 2018.

But the company has muscled through challenging times before. Its principal shareholders, Chairman Georg Schaeffler, 54, and his mother, Maria-Elisabeth Schaeffler-Thumann, the 77-year-old widow of company co-founder Georg Schaeffler, sidestepped financial troubles in 2008-09. At that time, the billionaire Schaeffler-Thumann made a play to buy a minority stake in fellow German supplier Continental, a multinational automotive giant more than twice Schaeffler’s size. But when Continental’s share price sank with the rest of the auto industry at the beginning of the Great Recession, she unexpectedly found herself on the hook to buy 75 percent of Continental’s stock. The $15 billion bill for that purchase put her in a precarious financial situation personally.

Schaeffler-Thumann recruited her son back to the family business from his career as an attorney in Dallas to guide Schaeffler. The company hired a European banking executive, Klaus Rosenfeld, as CFO to restructure the family’s empire and make it financially secure.

A decade later, Rosenfeld serves the Schaefflers as CEO. The family is one of Europe’s wealthiest, with Georg Schaeffler listed by Forbes as the world’s 96th richest individual, with a net worth of $12.6 billion. And while Schaeffler Group has reduced its ownership stake in Continental to 46 percent, the investment has proved to be a windfall beyond Schaeffler-Thumann’s original vision, and Continental is still operated separately from its smaller owner.

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