Don't complain to Continental (CTTAY ) Chief Executive Manfred Wennemer about stagnant auto markets or high German labor costs. Since taking charge in September, 2001, he has slashed a $4.1 billion debt to $1.2 billion and delivered powerful growth and profits in a shrinking market. Last year net profit at the Hannover tire and electronics-systems maker soared 115%, to $870 million, as revenues jumped 9.2%, to $16.1 billion. Conti's share price has more than tripled in three years.
And Wennemer has expanded the business, which has gone beyond tires to innovations in electronic brake systems and intelligent chassis that have helped make Continental a global player in auto electronics, second only to German rival Robert Bosch in Europe.
Faced with demands by auto makers for annual price reductions, Wennemer has shifted production of everything from tires to electronic circuit boards to Eastern Europe and other low-cost zones. Leading by example, the 57-year-old CEO has no driver and flies economy. "He doesn't care about glamour or status," says one co-worker. That helped persuade union leaders to agree to stretch their workweek at a Hannover tire plant from 37.5 hours a week to more than 40 with no extra compensation. "Global competition doesn't grant a time out," says Wennemer.
When it comes to economizing, Wennemer uses even words sparingly. In answering managers' e-mails, he types responses within their text in red letters. His only comment at the top is: "See red." Conti staff say the system is off-putting at first, but it reflects Wennemer's obsession with getting to the point. For this manager, the less decorum, the better the results.
By Gail Edmondson