A matriarch with foresight
“The exceptional success of Schaeffler AG is inconceivable without the exceptional talent of its shareholder.” Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Reitzle conveyed these words of utmost recognition for Maria-Elisabeth Schaeffler-Thumann in August 2021 on the occasion of her 80th birthday and her 25th anniversary at the helm of one of the world’s leading technology corporations. Reitzle, as former CEO of Ford Germany, BMW and Linde, and today as chairman of Linde’s board of directors and chairman of Continental’s supervisory board one of Germany’s most notable business leaders, expressed his praise in even more precise terms: “I personally know only few entrepreneurial or managerial personalities – be they men or women – who proceed in more rational, calculated and strategically foresighted ways than she does.”
Global group perfected
Maria-Elisabeth Schaeffler-Thumann, who in 2014 also adopted the last name of her second husband, Jürgen Thumann, originally wanted to become a pianist or physician. But then, in 1963, the young medical student met Georg Schaeffler. They got married in the same year and started a family. Maria-Elisabeth Schaeffler, born Maria-Elisabeth Kurssa in Prague in 1941 and at home in Vienna since 1945, became the “First Lady” in the German technology pioneer’s family-owned company in Herzogenaurach. Since his death in August 1996, she has been continuing his life’s work in his stead – strong-willed, determined, disciplined. As the only co-shareholder her son, Georg F. W. Schaeffler, supports her. Today, Georg F. W. Schaeffler, who has a degree in business administration and is a business lawyer, also serves as chairman of Schaeffler AG’s supervisory board.
I personally know only few entrepreneurial or managerial personalities – be they men or women – who proceed in more rational, calculated and strategically foresighted ways than she does.Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Reitzle about Maria-Elisabeth Schaeffler-Thumann
In the mid-nineteen-nineties, Germany was Europe’s backmarker in terms of growth but, driven by new technologies such as the internet and mobile telecommunications, new opportunities emerged. Today, Maria-Elisabeth Schaeffler-Thumann, then 55 years old, describes her start into full entrepreneurial responsibility like this: “That was no mean feat because INA had been created by Georg Schaeffler and was tailored to him. Some people advised us back then to sell the company but that was never an option for my son and me. I was determined to continue Georg Schaeffler’s life work and to take advantage of the development potential that presented itself in view of the dynamic global changes.”
As early as in the first ten years under the auspices of the two shareholders, Maria-Elisabeth and Georg F. W. Schaeffler, the family-owned company grew faster than ever. LuK – co-founded in the mid-nineteen-sixties by Georg Schaeffler and his brother, Dr. Wilhelm Schaeffler – was fully acquired in 1999, followed by the acquisition of competitor FAG Kugelfischer in 2001. Sales and headcount tripled in the space of one decade. Operationally executed by a trusted management team, the shareholders transformed the medium-sized company with its origins in the mechanical sector into a technology group with global operations. There were many observers who didn’t expect such success to be achievable. Maria-Elisabeth Schaeffler-Thumann recalls: “Here was a widow with little expertise and a son working as an attorney in America; so, there wasn’t a lot of confidence in us. But I was and still am obsessed with this company.” This passion for the company, of which her husband had been a living example, inspired his heirs as well.
Family business preserved
Company and family were always a unit for Georg Schaeffler. Together with his brother, Wilhelm, he founded Industrie GmbH in Herzogenaurach in 1946. As early as in the first financial year, headcount grew to 150. A hand truck with side walls that were changeable as needed became the first mobility bestseller in post-war Germany. But the simple vehicle was just a temporary solution. From 1950 onward, the cage-guided needle roller bearing, a brilliant invention by Georg Schaeffler that would revolutionize motion and mobility – in automotive engineering as well as in general industry – enabled the company’s rapid rise.
Georg Schaeffler was more than the technical head of his business. From day one, he was its social heart as well. He introduced company sports teams, company childcare facilities, boarding houses for vacationers and insurance policies with favorable premiums.
Maria-Elisabeth Schaeffler-Thumann fosters this part of his legacy with equal passion. “He wanted me to regard the company as part of our family, just like he did, so he explained to me the business, the products, introduced me to the workforce and encouraged me to go into the organization in order to learn by watching and listening,” she says in looking back on her very personal 33 years of learning at Georg Schaeffler’s side. Conferences of senior management and meetings of design engineers here, speeches addressing apprentices, length of service recognition of employees and parties with retirees there: Schaeffler’s “First Lady” always establishes good rapport and strikes the right chord with the members of management and with employees on all levels and all over the world. She listens carefully, is truly empathetic but does not shy away from making painful decisions if they’re important for the good of the company as a whole. That’s why the workforce trusts her even in the most difficult of times.
Strong leadership in times of crisis
The bond between the shareholders and the workforce of the family-owned corporation also manifested itself during the course of Schaeffler’s majority shareholding in Continental that started encountering severe turbulence in 2008 due to the unexpected onset of the global financial crisis. The threat of the company folding was looming. “We were united in solidarity on the city hall square and I can still hear the shouts of ‘We are Schaeffler’ in my ear. This sense of cohesion of the big ‘Schaeffler family’ gave me a lot of strength,” says Maria-Elisabeth Schaeffler-Thumann as she recalls her most difficult phase as the company’s “director” and “pacemaker.” Working together with her son and shoulder to shoulder with the workforce and management, the effort of steering the corporation back into calmer waters proved successful.
For Dr. Ariane Reinhart, Member of the Executive Board for Human Resources and Director of Labor Relations at Continental, the Schaeffler shareholder’s empathy with and loyalty to employees are equal success factors as her courage, her determination and her perseverance: “Maria-Elisabeth Schaeffler-Thumann was and continues to always be a reliable guide in this respect, a matriarch in the best sense of the term. People feel equally valued and protected by her and therefore supported and validated.” The company and the family belong together inseparably. That’s the example set by the lives of the company’s founders, Wilhelm and Georg Schaeffler, and that’s how their heirs continue in their day.
Still a family business after going public
In 2015, the Schaeffler Group went public. Once again, Maria-Elisabeth Schaeffler-Thumann stated clearly that “The Schaeffler Group will continue to be a family business going forward. As shareholders we assume responsibility for the development of our group of companies unchanged.” The fact that headcount since 1996 had more than quadrupled from around 20,000 to nearly 84,000 showed the company’s extremely successful development in the past 25 years.
Today, Schaeffler operates 75 production plants in more than 50 countries and is represented at some 200 locations in total. As an automotive supplier the company has become a driving force in the development of electric powertrains and with its industrial division has evolved into one of the leading suppliers of systems and bearing solutions in the wind power sector, among other things. Autonomous driving, digitalization and Industry 4.0 have long become important business segments. Year after year the automotive and industrial supplier registers some 2,000 patents – a number that’s hardly matched by any other company. As a result, Schaeffler AG is one of the world leaders in terms of inventing and developing components and systems for motion and mobility. Or, as a poster on Schaeffler’s premises installed underneath the shareholders’ office says: “We pioneer motion.”
Schaeffler has been moving the world for 75 years
You can find everything about the company's history here.