EXPANDING Continental AG's automotive systems business has been Hubertus von Gruenberg's driving ambition since he took over as chairman in 1991.
Von Gruenberg joined the tiremaker in July 1991 after running ITT Automotive for four years. At the time, Conti was in trouble. It was in the final stages of defending itself from an unwelcome bid from Pirelli SpA.
Since then von Gruenberg has won the respect of the industry. He revived Conti's troubled General Tire unit in North America and shifted a quarter of tire manufacturing to low cost locations.
'Continental is good at restructuring in a tight, competitive, price-sensitive market,' said Tom Aney of Hypo Bank in Munich.
Von Gruenberg's initial focus was on tire and wheel assemblies. Then in 1994 he set up Continental Automotive Systems to develop ride and chassis products. Sales for the new unit were less than DM100 million ($57 million) in 1997, but are expected to reach DM500 million by 2002. Continental Automotive Systems employs about 200 in Hannover, mainly in product development.
'It has been very slow to take off, but it's got some good products coming up,' said John Lawson, auto analyst at Salomon Smith Barney in London.
Wheel-tire modules are Continental's main growth area. Module production grew 15 percent in the first half of 1998.
Continental has turned heads with its ISAD (Integrated Starter Alternator Damper) system that combines starter and alternator functions in one compact, high-performance unit that replaces the flywheel.
Citroen and BMW showed experimental engines with the technology at the Geneva auto show in March. The integrated starter-alternator is expected to be introduced in 2001. Continental expects sales of DM450 million from the system by 2005.