Robert Oswald, CEO of auto supplier Robert Bosch Corp., also is general chairman of the 1999 SAE Congress and Exposition. He spoke with Special Correspondent Tim Moran last week after a meeting of the Automotive Press Association in Detroit.
It seems like a paradox: While the industry is consolidating with mergers and acquisitions, the demand for new engineering talent is exceeding the supply.
I wish I could consider it a paradox; I don't. Because, first, if you just look at the technical content of our vehicles today compared with 10 or 20 years ago, you will conclude that the amount of technical content has been increasing.
At the same time, you do have the other trend, which has been true through the 1990s: the OEs are pushing more and more of the development and application work to the supplier side.
So we have seen a quite strong increase in demand for engineers worldwide.
What comes out of SAE for Bosch?
Bosch actually sat down about five years ago, and we challenged ourselves with every one of the worldwide exhibits and shows that we are in. We wanted to get clear: 'Why are we here? Is this really worth the money we're spending? Is this really worth the time we're committing to it?'
We concluded that the major reason we are at the SAE show is to expose our company to young engineers in the industry. To try and give a mechanism for young engineers to know what Bosch is and see what products we have, basically to become involved with what we can offer to the business.
We have, obviously, secondary objectives to say we're looking to make contact with potential customers.
What is the payback for the time you are spending on behalf of the congress?
Actually, if I look at the personal side of being the general chairman, I look at it the other way around: I am paying back SAE for what I've taken from it over the years. So I don't look, actually, for a future payback. I'm paying my dues.
Did you need board approval?
Something like this is not so rigorous that it requires board approval. However, this subject, since it was a first for Bosch as well, did go through a board discussion.
What's the minimum cost, stripped of external events, that a company incurs by accepting an invitation to chair the event?
I would put it probably in the range of $100,000.
People have criticized the SAE Congress as a cumbersome physical meeting place, a difficult thing to get to, maybe not all that robust in a high-technology time. How does it maintain its validity in a time of videoconferencing and virtual meetings?
My experience is, for a certain part of the communications experience, videoconferences are extremely good. To say that they replace the face-to-face and the direct dialogue that you have in an event like SAE, I don't find that to be very logical. I still find that there are needs for a session like this.
How robust is the current environment? I think there are some indications that we could benefit from more space and a more comfortable meeting environment. And I really hope that a combination of the pressures from the auto show (and) the pressures from SAE might convince Detroit to expand the facilities here.
There's no fallback plan, though, to look at Chicago or New York or Las Vegas for SAE?
To my knowledge, there isn't. This is still the center of the automotive business worldwide. You talked about an alternate center; I don't think you would come to cities like Chicago or New York as a possible alternate.
What about the frequent supplier changes that have gone on with mergers and acquisitions?
If you look at the total numbers, it's misleading, because the total number of exhibitors actually went down year over year. However, I'll just talk Bosch: Three years ago, Bosch exhibited as five separate companies that are now under one name, Bosch. So if you just looked at the numbers, you would say the SAE has lost four exhibitors. What has really happened is, our display has expanded and we have put more businesses into the same Bosch display. A number of companies have gone through the same dynamic.
A lot of the information that's revealed in technical sessions, engineer-to-engineer, is quite sensitive.
In my opinion, that's a historic, necessary, desirable tension. For these sessions to be useful, for people really to come to these sessions, they have to be able to experience some honest and some dynamic interchange. We would not dare tell our engineers, we would not dare take a company position which says, 'You don't talk about anything, and you don't participate in these sessions.'