Webasto CEO's career marked by tough decisions

Douglas A. Bolduc is managing editor at Automotive News Europe.Douglas A. Bolduc is managing editor at Automotive News Europe.
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Webasto CEO Franz-Josef Kortuem considers a pair of tough decisions made within the last decade among his proudest professional accomplishments.

Kortuem, who was Audi CEO before taking charge of the German roof and thermal systems supplier 18 years ago, will transition to Webasto's supervisory board next year. He will be succeeded by Holger Engelmann, who is currently Webasto's deputy CEO.

Kortuem says that his decision to end a roof joint venture with Pininfarina in 2004 after just one year of operation was the right one, even though it cost Webasto 45 million euros to buy out Pininfarina's 50 percent share.

"We realized there was a problem and that we needed to fix it quickly and that is what we did," the CEO told Automotive News Europe on Wednesday in Munich following the company's financial results conference, where he also announced his future plans.

Kortuem said it was hard to face the criticism for the failed deal, but he believes the quick action saved the company a lot of cash and headaches because less than a year later Pininfarina started losing money and it continues to struggle financially today.

Another memorable moment was Webasto's decision to hold firm on its offer for rival Edscha's roof business in 2008.

"They wanted much more than we were willing to spend so we said, 'No'," Kortuem recounted.

The wait-and-see attitude worked. Edscha Group started insolvency proceeding for its European sites in 2009. By the end of the year, Webasto had approval from German competition authorities to take over Edscha's roof unit for an undisclosed price. German media reports say Webasto paid 50 million euros for the Edscha division.

Neither Kortuem nor Webasto would confirm the sale price, he only would say it was much lower than what Edscha wanted originally.

The takeover has helped make Webasto a powerhouse in the roof systems business, where it estimates that it is now three times bigger than its nearest competitor.

Overall, Kortuem said he finds it rather ironic that he started his career at the end of the production process – selling cars – and ends his career at the beginning of the process – providing key pieces for vehicles.

He said he is pleased that he was able to climb up from being a low-level Mercedes-Benz salesman to the CEO of Audi and then to the top spot at Webasto during a career of 36 years – and counting.

His parting comment was that while his role at Webasto has changed, "I am not going away."

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