150 years of Continental – structural change as a constant

Hanover (dpa) – Was Continental a start-up? Historically, that may sound a bit too “hip” – from the point of view of the founders 1871, however, the fashion term could almost apply.

In rubber at the time -Boom also tried small companies and inventors to use the natural raw material from the tropics for all kinds of rubber products. Soon it was a matter of manufacturing tires on an industrial scale. After all, the American rival Goodyear was already well 30 years ahead. The tires from Hanover formed the basis for a global group. He will be this Friday (08. 10.) 150 years old.

many breaks

For the anniversary, the executive suite conjures up a story based on the motto “Change is the only constant”. Indeed, the Conti story is full of breaks, alterations, and reorientations. Sometimes due to the passage of time and external shocks, sometimes triggered by reactions to internal deficits. From this, some lessons should be learned – especially now, when the second largest German auto supplier with so far 38 billion euros in annual sales and 236 000 employees like the entire industry is facing the next, probably biggest, change process. Or actually already in the middle of it.

“The current speed is different from previous transformations,” says CEO Nikolai Setzer. “Software has completely different development cycles.” But the DAX group has experience with proclaiming a “new Continental”. The first change came 1874 when the chemist Adolf Prinzhorn professionalized the manufacture of tires. Bicycles should roll on air tubes, rubber processing must be refined. Coming from South America, the “biological plastic” from the milky sap of the rubber tree found its way to India and Southeast Asia – and thus largely under the control of Great Britain as the dominant sea and trading power.

It all starts with rubber

The German Reich also wants more access to the basic material. The US inventor Charles Goodyear – namesake of the later competitor – had made advances in rubber hardening long before that: his technique of so-called vulcanization was in the late 1830 matured. With sulfur atoms, bridges between the large-meshed giant molecules (polymers) can be built under heat and pressure. The addition of carbon black additionally stabilized individual rubber compounds.

Tire chemistry was born. Conti is still lagging behind at first. However, the up-and-coming industry is reporting a need for larger quantities. Methods are being researched to artificially replicate the natural polymers. An ulterior motive in the age of imperialism: to produce as much of this synthetic rubber as possible for the army.

The Hanoverians see the years before the First World War as a phase of the breakthrough to become a tire manufacturer. The first profile models are admired at world exhibitions. In the interwar period with a high level of international integration, racing cyclist and businessman Willy Tischbein rationalized and “Americanized” the company – this transformation will cost many jobs for the first time. The product range is expanded to include leisure items such as rubber boats or swimming caps.

The darkest chapter

Then from 1929 the big one Crash: The global economic crisis hits Conti hard, production and trade shrink, and unemployment rises. With Hitler’s seizure of power 1933 the darkest chapter finally begins. Because of the militarily important rubber production, the group is transformed into a Nazi model company in which up to 1945 thousands of prisoners of war and concentration camp inmates are exploited as forced laborers. Many die, even more are systematically harassed. More and more «Buna» rubber – formed with the substances butadiene and sodium – is to be produced. For truck tires, boot soles, machine parts.

In the summer 2020, Conti presented a study to deal with this time. It made a terrifying picture. The analysis by the historian Paul Erker traced a creeping process from a global company to the partial machinery of a totalitarian system, which culminated in facilities such as the “shoe test track” in Sachsenhausen concentration camp within sight of the gallows. “The reading was very depressing in many places,” said Setzer’s predecessor Elmar Degenhart.

What is important to the group: You never want to be instrumentalized again politically or even by a dictatorship – especially according to the study, quite a few Managers at the time were “actively involved” in the marginalization of Jewish colleagues. Today, the lesson also applies to work in other parts of the world, promises Conti. Degenhart emphasized: “It is a warning to all managers in business and politics to handle their responsibility very carefully.”

Difficult new beginning

The economic boom of the 50 he and early 60 he then falls asleep little. The French competitor Michelin dominates the scene with its new concept of the radial tire. Conti’s attempt at alliances with Dunlop or Pirelli fails. From the late 70 there are more solid acquisitions or investments with Uniroyal and Semperit Technological leap begins in the 90 and afterwards: In addition to tires and mechanical engineering, there is a separate automotive technology division for drives, chassis, control units and safety systems. With acquisitions of billions such as Teves and the former Siemens auto division VDO, Continental is expanding into the industry.

The “automotive” business, the drive division of which has now largely been spun off into the listed company Vitesco, is taking off Lower Saxony on a level with global players like Bosch, ZF, Magna, Denso, Schaeffler. The latter are fighting a takeover battle with Continental 2008 / 2009. In the end, the industrial holding company controlled by the Schaeffler family becomes the main shareholder with 46 percent.

Transformation of the Pain and opportunities

How things will continue is mapped out: everything on electromobility and digitization. Lower or CO2-neutral drives, autonomous driving, more and more sensors and our own software development should be the driving forces of the coming years – embedded in a new climate protection and recycling strategy. The higher pace “does not change anything fundamentally about our actions”, says the CEO. «In the 150 years a lot has happened, wars and crises. We think long-term – otherwise we would not be where we are today. ”

The fact that the latest upheaval is also causing pain is unavoidable – even if the leadership with its timetable“ Transformation

– 2029 »tries to counteract tens of thousands of deleted or« changed »positions with further qualification of the workforce. Setzer, who has been at the top of the Conti team since the end of 2020, considers the cuts to be “very bitter”. At the same time, the chances are great: “We are relying even more on our future technologies. The software makes the difference. »

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