Hired in the first wave of employees at Opel's lean production factory in Eisenach, Germany, Frank Schaefer's career has moved steadily upward.
The former team leader is now an assembly engineer, overseeing 30 workers and five teams. He has a deputy and five team leaders under his supervision.
Married and a father of two, 30-year-old Schaefer owns an Astra station wagon, purchased with the help of his 20 percent employee discount. He recently ordered a new Zafira minivan. The factory pays well, life is comfortable and there's a good future at Opel, he says.
Schaefer's lifestyle and ambitions are not unusual for an Opel manager on the rise. Except that he comes from the former East Germany. A management job at GM's most efficient assembly plant in Europe was almost unthinkable eight years ago. Back then a wall separated Schaefer from his countrymen in the west.
Werner Schaefer, Frank's father, worked as a body technician at the automobile factory that once stood where the Eisenach plant is today.
It produced smoke-belching Wartburgs, East Germany's technologically ancient luxury car. Werner Schaefer did not own a Wartburg. The waiting list was nearly 10 years long. So the family settled for a Trabant, communist Germany's smaller, affordable car for the working man. But it was just as dirty.
Frank Schaefer applied for an apprenticeship at the Wartburg plant when he turned 18. He passed an exam and landed a job. Wartburg was the largest employer in the Eisenach region and Schaefer felt lucky going to work for a carmaker.
He immediately registered to buy a Wartburg - and was told the waiting list had grown to 12 years. Then the world as he knew it turned upside down. The Berlin Wall fell. Executives from Opel arrived before the jubilation had died down. Fritz Lohr, Opel's chief engineer, sketched the layout for a new lean production factory on the back of a beer coaster.
By March 1990, Opel had secured a deal to build cars at the old Wartburg plant. More than 20,000 people, some from as far as 100km away, filled out job applications.
Schaefer, then 22, was one of the lucky few hired to assemble Opel Vectras from kits. But that wasn't until he had passed written, practical knowledge and technical efficiency tests - exams designed to identify the brightest candidates for GM's new lean plant.
'I wanted to work in this profession and I knew they were using special criteria to find employees,' Schaefer says. 'I knew Opel was a company with a good reputation and a good future.'
The success of Opel's Eisenach plant is well documented. It is GM's leanest and most efficient plant and the blueprint for new, efficient factories in Brazil, Argentina and Poland.
Eisenach turns out Corsas and Astras faster than any other GM factory. Former plant managers such as Eric Stevens and Tom LaSorda have become legends at GM as lean production gurus teaching the principles of Eisenach throughout the corporation.
For Schaefer, who has gone from a Wartburg line worker to a manager at one of the most efficient plants in the world, Opel's investment in the former East Germany has been little short of a miracle.