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Q&A: Forster talks about quality, plans for Opel models

Russelsheim. Improving product quality is a focal point in Opel's Olympia restructuring program, which was initiated by Chairman Carl-Peter Forster in summer 2001. Harald Hamprecht and Franz Rother of Automobilwoche spoke to Forster about the reaction to the new Vectra and his future aims for the company.

Are you satisfied with the quality of the new Opel Vectra?

We have reached a level of quality with the Vectra that Opel has never reached before.

You allegedly still have to overcome some quality problems with the Vectra GTS fastback version.

That is not quite right. Internal studies have shown that there are only marginal differences between the four-door version, which is built in Russelsheim, and the five-door version, which is manufactured in Ellesmere Port in England.

How is it possible then that you had fit-and-finish-faults with the GTS? Were those just isolated cases?

It may well be that there were a few GTS -specific problems during the first few weeks after production start-up. However, such cars have not been sold to customers. It is also very common to make certain rectifications during a production start-up.

In March you sent 30 engineers to England in order to work on certain problems at Ellesmere Port. Will you tell us a few details?

Basically there is always an additional team from another plant present at a production start-up. That way we make use of previous learning experiences. The Vectra sedan went into production in Russelsheim six months earlier. We profited from the experiences we had then. However I admit that a few more rectifications still have to be undertaken at Ellesmere Port.

More rectifications mean more time and higher production costs, don't they?

That's right. But those inefficiencies mainly have an impact on the volume. We haven't got a quality problem at Ellesmere Post but a capacity problem. We are between 10 and 20 percent below the hourly capacity of 40 units. At the same time we periodically experience a higher demand than usual. That hurts. We will change that as soon as possible.

Will the additional costs for rectifications and the inefficiencies in Ellesmere Port jeopardize Opel's planned turnaround?

No, we don't worry about the additional costs. They still lie in the low, six-figure euro region. The important thing is that we can sell quality to our customers. Starting with the Zafira five years ago we have made enormous progress regarding durability and reliability. Now we focus on increasing the tangible quality. Quality is fundamental for the turnaround.

Where do you believe Opel stands in comparison to its competitors?

Regarding quality, Opel is rapidly approaching a place at the top of the industry. The speed at which Opel is moving is without equal. By 2004 we will be one of the best in each sector.

Can you support this?

Between 1999 and the end of 2002 we managed to reduce warranty costs by 32 percent and the number of warranty cases by 49 percent.

How much are you hoping to save through quality improvements?

It is our aim to totally compensate the effects of the two-year warranty. In 2003 this has had a positive effect on our balance sheet for the first time. Otherwise we theoretically would have additional costs of 200 million euros.

And what will the actual costs be?

Nil. We are assuming that we will manage to totally compensate for those additional costs.

This should have a very positive effect on your balance sheet. Are you possibly aiming to reach the profit zone before the fourth quarter?

No. In the current economic situation we should really reduce our forecasts. But we are holding on to our target, even though it is still early in the year and a lot may yet happen.

You have recently warned your top managers that the turnaround may result in yet more cuts.

Some understood this as a threat. But I always said a turnaround is a long-term process, a marathon. So far we have managed only the first stage. Some managers have had an impressive race during the past two years. However, they must not return to a trot now. I am not prepared to accept such an attitude.

So there is no "all-clear" and maybe further personnel cuts will be needed?

There are currently no plans of that sort. We have already announced that we have to make adjustments according to our capacities. The recently introduced single-line system in Bochum, for example, will affect personnel. But that is a known fact.

Opel will manufacture the new Astra at the Bochum plant. Since you are aiming to rapidly increase Opel's quality, may we expect the perfect car?

The new Astra will be another step forward in regard to quality. It will most definitely be the car with the shortest development period of any car ever designed by the GM group. Our engineers will only need 20 months from providing the data specifications for the outer paneling to the production start-up. The new Astra also has the lowest number of rectifications. However, no car will ever be perfect unless we make zero mistakes. And I believe that it is impossible to make zero mistakes -- for Opel and any other manufacturer.

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