Continental AG addresses fresh challenges as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic
The company was forced to shut down all of its global tyre manufacturing operations within a short space of time as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and has recently begun a return to production. “During that period, we had to wind down operations efficiently as well as implement cost mitigation measures such as short-term work initiatives from national governments, having workers take holidays, as well as unpaid leave along with salary reductions at management level,” says David O’Donnell, Global Head of Passenger and Light Truck Tyres at Continental AG.
The company is now seeing a welcome but slow return to activity among key automaker customers globally.
“We are observing more build-to-order in response to a concrete need for the vehicles in contrast to before, where they were built for an assumed level of demand.” said David O’Donnell
O’Donnell believes it will be several years before production levels recover. “We will be looking at 2022 or 2023 best case before we get to anything like 2019 volumes. Everybody will have to react to the seismic shift in volumes. We are looking at 70 million vehicles this year versus more than 80 million last year. If you can get used to the current level somehow, then you likely have two years of growth. The question is do you hold your capacity to be able to access more opportunities, or do you reduce your cost exposure in order to go into a new growth mode in a different way? That will put pressure on cost management and will also make them look at systems efficiencies and internal company structures.”
Focus on Agility
One impact of the global pandemic has been an enforced increased level of agility on the part of manufacturers. “How quickly can you ramp something down? Can you run with a portion of the plant and do that cost-effectively? How do you align it better system-wise to orders?” O’Donnell asks.
“They might have full orders for a certain vehicle and then change it completely from week to week or month to month. It will take time for people to get over their nervousness to rely on orders and feel comfortable with the new processes,” he adds. “Those who can adapt to that uncertainty will be winners in this situation.”
He believes this may present opportunities for Irish firms, which have a reputation for agility and flexibility. According to O’Donnell, anything a company can offer in terms of productivity, improving potential efficiency or agility such as adjusting payment terms for a period, holding more stock, or quickening pace of production would be beneficial.
Opportunities may also exist in the dual procurement structure and more localised supply chain which could result from the crisis. “When China went into lockdown there were war room discussions in our organisation concerning who’s going to stop the slide first. It was a pivotal moment because you had electronic equipment coming from the huge manufacturing hub of China and that affected the batches in Serbia, for example. The aftershock will see OEMs discussing a change in tactics with their purchasing groups, as well as sourcing from multiple and more local suppliers going forward.”
Noting that the Trump administration’s policies have already led to a discussion about what operations can companies relocate to the US, O’Donnell says more nationalisation in Europe may bring more opportunities than in the past.
“A friend and colleague of mine is doing relatively small batch production of printed circuit boards and prototypes. He’s based in Germany and he has had a lot of requests because he is both local and agile as well as an alternative supplier to China. He might be more expensive but he’s offering the flexibility these companies need.”
But customers won’t be willing to pay higher prices forever. “Once the OEMs are back at full capacity with high volumes again, they will come very aggressively with price discussions as they try to regain profitability.”
He advises suppliers to be proactive in going after these opportunities. “It’s a question of arguing yourself into that space as a potential partner and bringing the advantages forward. Become ready for agility and be customer-centric by assessing challenges they have, look at the macro picture and present yourself as a local and flexible supplier. If you can do something there, you may have an advantage in winning long-term business.”