“I’m in China because I believe that a part of automotive history is being written here,” says Holger Klein. Since 2018, the former McKinsey consultant is responsible for the Asia-Pacific region at German automotive supplier ZF. The Friedrichshafen company, which was founded in 1915 as a factory producing cogwheels, has been selling its products in China for more than 40 years, but like many other Western companies, was for a long time only a “sleeping giant” in the Middle Kingdom.
“A lot of things happen very quickly here. It’s a challenge. We have to be very modest,” says the 51-year-old. At ZF, it is already described as “China Speed”.
In 2018, the group located at Lake Constance generated sales of more than six billion euros in China, the majority of which was from drive and chassis technology as well as safety technology for passenger cars and commercial vehicles. However, the rapid electrification, increased networking and the far-reaching autonomy of assistance systems are the major trends of the next few years, believes the industrial engineer. Companies like NIO and Xiaopeng are already rethinking the automobile in China, he said. “I admire many of the newcomers. They are definitely great cars. Infotainment and connectivity play a big role there, and without any legacy at all. Because they don’t already have thousands of cars in the field.”
Klein, who is also responsible for the Car Chassis Technology and Aftermarket divisions at ZF, first came to China in the 1990s, where he visited Shenzhen, among other places, which at that time hardly resembled the high-tech metropolis of today. The tech manager, who was born in Mülheim an der Ruhr in 1970, has now been living in Shanghai with his family for two years. There is one big difference from his time as a consultant: “if you are not just flying in and out, you develop a deeper understanding of the culture, country and people. When you live there, you only begin to understand what you don’t understand,” he says with a laugh.
To stay on top of developments, ZF is now investing more and more in mechatronics, software and high-tech. “Things that are now an integral part of the ZF portfolio,” as Klein points out. Earlier this year at Auto Shanghai, he unveiled the next generation of ZF’s high-performance computer, the ZF ProAI. “It is currently the most flexible, scalable and powerful supercomputer in the world for the automotive industry,” Klein emphasized at the presentation. It is suitable for every type of vehicle and for all stages of automated or autonomous driving and is scheduled to go into serial production in 2024.
Expanding business in China is an important goal of ZF’s “Next Generation Mobility” strategy. “Covid has accelerated this development even further because we have seen how fragile supply chains are. We want to produce ‘local for local’, an ambitious goal.” ZF is currently building its third research and development center in China, which is scheduled to begin operations in 2023.
In China, the Covid crisis has rather benefited ZF than harmed it, also because the company was able to increase its popularity with unconventional measures. As early as May 2020, ZF had begun the production of masks on an industrial scale – initially to protect employees. But production was quickly expanded so that Chinese citizens could also be provided with masks. Cities and municipalities thanked the Germans. “We pushed that to perfection. Typical motorists,” Holger Klein says with a grin. Fabian Peltsch