Today when you talk to the people of Conti in Lower Saxony about the past and the future of the company, they like to talk about the horse. Which may come as a surprise at first glance, given that Continental is one of the largest automotive suppliers in the world. But on the other hand: The horse, or rather the equipment for horse and rider, is the clearest constant in this company which celebrates its 150 years this Friday.
In any case, Ariane Reinhart, administrator of human resources and sustainable development, holds out a piece of rubber when she talks about the anniversary: a protective shoe. The “Compagnie Continentale Ca sucre-und Gutta-Percha” started its activity with this product in 1871: For decades, horses have been equipped with it to dampen the noise of hooves in cities and relieve the shackles of animals. A good deal that the Hanover-based company remembered some time ago: Now there is the “Continental Turfcord”, a rubber hoof protector that replaces the traditional horseshoe. “Some things remain the same,” explains the manager, who also rides herself. It was largely with the traditional.
Because Conti has changed over and over again. It’s a business that reflects German history, in its ups and downs, as historians Paul Erker and Nils Fehlhaber critically note in the anniversary publication. Continental is a success story, they write. “One that is based on the constant restructuring and reinvention of the organization.” Even if Conti was never lucky: all birthdays took place in times of crisis or at least in phases of upheaval.
The company took advantage of the Nazi regime
In 1896, for example, the consequences of the “Great Depression” which followed the start-up boom into which Continental was born could still be felt. But they stood up, built air blankets for the zeppelins, and became the original equipment supplier for the then largest automaker, Opel. Most importantly, Conti was known at the time as a manufacturer of rubber bullets and rubber dolls.
Then the two world wars, one of which was the victim of the foreign branches of the already global company. In the other, the leadership enjoyed the support of the Nazi regime. At least 6,700 forced laborers, prisoners of war and concentration camp inmates worked hard towards the end of 1943 to produce artificial rubber, buna, for war equipment.
Open detailed view
The horse as constant: a racing driver who is probably on the road with Conti tires.
(Photo: Raphael Huenerfauth / photothek.net / imago / photothek)
Thus entangled in injustice, write historians, the company’s management and workforce have had to completely reinvent themselves. He succeeded with the product Conti is best known for today: tires. But in the 1960s, competition became a threat to its existence: Michelin of France had developed a whole new technically superior tire technology – which weakened the Germans so much that a few years later competitor Pirelli was able to launch an attempt of redemption which was only slightly unsuccessful.
It was not until the mid-1990s that the electronics division began to be formed through acquisitions, which today represents half of turnover (planned for 2021: 34 billion euros and 6.5% operating margin). The highlight: the billion dollar purchase of Siemens VDO, which produces, for example, ABS sensors. Excessive self-confidence instead of worrying about the future dominated now. A good ten years ago, Franconia Schaeffler AG liked this so much that it was preparing to become Conti’s largest shareholder. A company that initially caused heated disputes and financial difficulties, but did not hurt Conti: sales and number of employees doubled during the time under Elmar Degenhart.
Turn away from the heat engine, invest in digital
In retrospect, historians come to more than a half-dozen “more or less pronounced and partly overlapping phases of transformation” that the company has survived – due to its internal robustness and a constant search for independence. The next transformation is underway right now, perhaps the most significant to date: stagnant car sales around the world and the end of the combustion engine have affected Conti. Factories will be closed, and a total of 23,000 of the 193,000 employees will “switch” by the end of the decade. Conti wants to retrain them, but not all of them will be able to keep their jobs.
“Are we being led, are we being leaders?” To be honest, we are both, ”says Reinhart, Conti’s board member. So they have just handed over all the drive technology – internal combustion engines and electric motors – to a spin-off company called Vitesco and are focusing entirely on digital: the computers for the Volkswagen ID.3 and ID.4 models come from Basse- Saxony. group, for example. “The following sentence applies: When you let go, you have a free hand for new things,” says Reinhart. At least they still remember the origin: a horse is still depicted in the Continental logo, even after 150 years.