SAARLOUIS, Germany - Dinner with Rolf Zimmerman is as entertaining as it is informative. The chairman of Ford Werke AG, who also is a full Ford Motor Co. vice president, liked the white wine so much that he ordered a case - and paid for it with his Volkswagen bank card.
Zimmerman left Volkswagen AG in August 1997 to join Ford. But he keeps the VW card because, he insists, it is the best one on the market.
A readiness to voice such slightly irreverent opinions has not stopped the 52-year-old Zimmerman from rising quickly through the Ford hierarchy. He was named vice president of manufacturing for Ford of Europe in January 1998, less than five months after joining the automaker.
He is responsible for engine, transmission, vehicle body and assembly plants in Europe, plus manufacturing support. He became chairman of Ford Werke in August, and continues to head manufacturing in Europe.
Zimmerman warns that cost cutting and plant closings alone are no longer enough to save the industry from the drag of worldwide overcapacity. 'Overcapacity will lead to a price war in Europe, so we are preparing for it,' he said.
'But closing a plant is the easy option - the challenge is to change and improve what you have. Japanese transplants in the United Kingdom are 15 percent better than the best plants on the Continent, and we have a hard time matching them.'
But the survivors of any industry shakeout will be those with the most appealing products and the most flexible manufacturing operations, not necessarily the lowest costs, he said.
'The future needs innovative niche products,' he said. 'Cost savings alone will not save us.'