When it comes to auto safety, Germany's Continental (CTTAY ) is a leading global player. That makes Wolfgang Ziebart, the company's deputy chairman and head of its automotive systems division, a kind of czar of auto safety. Ziebart oversees a team of 3,000 engineers who are responsible for developing state-of-the-art safety features used in everything from the Volkswagen Golf compact to the Ford Explorer sport-utility vehicle.
Ziebart, 52, formerly a top engineer at BMW, derives a sense of fulfillment from developing products that make a difference. "We're saving lives, and that gives a further meaning to what we do," he says. Continental's safety mandate goes beyond air bags and antilock brakes. His engineers are working on high-tech systems designed to prevent accidents. One system electronically links an auto's brakes to sensors that can predict imminent rollovers or collisions and then redirect the wheels to keep the car steady. Thanks to such innovations, Continental has captured 44% of Europe's market for electronic braking systems and 29% of the North American market. Now, Ziebart wants to expand these systems to coordinate everything from steering to acceleration.
Ziebart's fascination with motor vehicles started at age 6, when his father took him to the Munich locomotive plant where he worked. "I was very impressed by the size and sound of the engines," recalls Ziebart. He earned an engineering degree from the Technical University of Munich and upon graduation joined BMW as a trainee. He rose to head the electrical engineering unit and in 1993 oversaw the development of the BMW 3 Series sedan, now a best-seller. After a shakeup led to the departure of top-tier execs at BMW, Ziebart joined Continental in October, 2000.
These days, when he sees an auto pile-up, Ziebart says he thinks about how to "develop the technology faster and reduce the costs." A family man with three children, he thinks all automobiles should be equipped with the best in safety systems. "Just because my wife drives a smaller car, I wouldn't want her to be less safe in it," he says. Spoken like a lifelong engineer.