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Founders, Decision-Makers, Companions: Influential Figures in ZF History

  • Count Alfred von Soden-Fraunhofen was a pioneer and the technical visionary of the first decades
  • Albert Maier, the technical director, helped the company overcome the post-war turmoil
  • Traditions of other companies live on in ZF: Sachs and Ulderup
  • An engineering spirit heading to new shores: Hansjörg Dach

People make history – including company history. With his energy and ingenuity, Count Alfred von Soden-Fraunhofen put his stamp on the ZF company in its early years. Other leaders, such as Albert Maier, helped the company emerge even stronger from one of the most difficult crises in the years after the Second World War. Following their lead, other generations of engineering technicians put their ingenuity to use to lay the technological foundations that are still being applied today. Not least, ZF's history consists of the traditions of formerly separate enterprises that were acquired by ZF.

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Founders, Decision-Makers, Companions: Influential Figures in ZF History

It all started with the count – this line could be the beginning of a ZF company history. The sentence is ambiguous because it could also refer to Ferdinand Count von Zeppelin who initiated the foundation of the then "Zahnradfabrik Friedrichshafen" looking for better driveline technology for his airship project. The founding impetus alone, however, does not lead to business success, especially when referring to the enormous period of a hundred years. The energy and founder's zeal of one count was joined by the engineering skills and perseverance of another: With these virtues, Count Alfred von Soden-Fraunhofen started a tradition that has been maintained throughout the eventful company history and is still alive today.

Founder and decision-maker: Count Alfred von Soden-Fraunhofen

Born in Bavaria in 1875, Baron Alfred von Soden-Fraunhofen made a career choice that was rather unusual for nobility at that time: Having completed his university-entrance diploma and active military service, he was supposed to study law in Munich but decided to study physics instead and in 1903 he graduated with a diploma in engineering. While holding his first jobs at "Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft" and "Maschinenfabrik Augsburg Nürnberg" (later MAN) the talented design engineer stayed in touch with Ferdinand Count Zeppelin, and in 1910 he came to Friedrichshafen to work at Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmbH. There, he focused on improving engines, transmissions, and propellers. After serving in the military for a short time at the beginning of the First World War, Soden was ordered back to Friedrichshafen in 1915 to help advance the construction of airships, which were deemed important for the war. One of the focal points here was the driveline, and improving the driveline was the objective of the "Zahnradfabrik Friedrichshafen GmbH" that was founded in 1915.

Soden made sure to involve the Swiss engineer Max Maag in order to be able to use his innovative gear manufacturing process. This technological edge and Soden's ingenuity were essential for the successful realignment of the company that became a corporation after the end of the First World War. With the Treaty of Versailles strictly regulating the formerly large aircraft industry, many companies started to align themselves to the automotive industry. With the "Soden transmission" that was named after him, the count and his company presented a preselector transmission for automobiles and commercial vehicles whose technology was far ahead of its time. A big economic success was the "standard transmission" that the Zahnradfabrik launched in the mid 1920s, also at Soden's initiative, enabling a bundling of volume in a highly fragmented market.

Soden, who simultaneously was the technical director of the Zahnradfabrik that was managed by him, was also the originator of the Aphon transmission whose helical gearing provided for very low-noise (classical Greek: "aphonic") operation. Noise quality, ease of operation, safety, customer orientation, efficient production – these are the "genes" of the ZF company that were already implanted by its founder. The start of the Nazi dictatorship in Germany, increased war production volumes, and the consequences of the Second World War also brought about an existential crisis for the Zahnradfabrik company whose location, Friedrichshafen, had been largely destroyed by bombs. The Count of Soden-Fraunhofen did not live to see this; he died in 1944.

Technician, pragmatist, manager: Dr. Albert Maier

"We engineers are cosmopolitans," Alber Maier is quoted as saying during a speech on the occasion of the 50-year anniversary of ZF Friedrichshafen AG. This line gives a good idea of the character traits of Maier, who was born in Radolfzell in 1899. He joined ZF Friedrichshafen AG in 1922 as a fresh graduate of the engineering school in Konstanz to work as an engineer in the Design Office. In 1946, he was appointed general manager along with Robert Pirker and Konstantin Schmäh – at a time that was difficult for the company. In the immediate post-war period, the three freshly appointed general managers – selected because they were deemed politically untainted – acted without clearly distributed responsibilities or any prospects for the future: The French occupation authorities in Friedrichshafen considered dismantling the company and liquidating ZF's Friedrichshafen location and, alternatively, newly founding ZF under the aegis of a French company. From the ZF plant in Schwäbisch Gmünd, the former member of the ZF Supervisory Board Hugo Eckener – formally still holding this position – was working towards demerging the ZF locations of Schwäbisch Gmünd and Passau that were located in the American Occupation Zone. It was not until the establishment of the Zeppelin Foundation in 1947, which three years later received almost 90 percent of ZF shares, that these quarrels came to an end. The pragmatist Albert Maier started different activities in the meantime: In the framework of "order regulations", he organized the cleanup efforts at ZF's Friedrichshafen location, gradually restoring production capability. In addition, he designed a compact car named Champion. Maier's Champion was deliberately not aligned to the automotive standard that had already been reached because the automobile and, with it, the often urgently needed mobility was completely unaffordable for many families in the immediate post-war years. In fact, his early "downsizing" exactly met the needs of the population: Customers should have the possibility to perform the final assembly of the open two-seater on their own; the engine block with a 3-hp engine of the Triumph brand was removable and could also be used to drive machine tools and boats. Due to the high workload in Friedrichshafen in 1948, other companies were to build the Champion; ZF focused on the original know-how and issued the licenses. The vehicle design was modified several times, without the Champion hitting the road in noteworthy quantities.

In 1951, the exceptional position of the ZF plant in Schwäbisch Gmünd also came to an end and Maier's responsibility now extended to the ZF company as a whole. He managed to receive a long-term commitment to the company from a group of highly skilled inventors and design engineers – among them Otto Schwab who played an important part in developing the automatic passenger car transmission. Moreover, in the Board of Management he laid the foundation for the realization of many technical product innovations in the years up to 1967. In addition, he was involved in the initial globalization efforts and supported the foundation of the first international location in Brazil. In 1967 he retired from the ZF Board of Management.

Further traditions: Sachs and Ulderup

The company founder Ernst Sachs was born at the Lake of Constance – namely in Konstanz in 1867 – but is rather associated with the city of Schweinfurt. He completed an apprenticeship as a precision mechanic in the Black Forest and – being keen on sports himself – started to technically optimize the bicycle wheel hub in the 1880s. With his "Schweinfurt patent precision hub" he invented the free-wheeling hub with coaster brake that is still being used today, virtually revolutionizing bicycling. Together with the merchant Karl Fichtel, he established the Fichtel & Sachs company that produced this and other further developments of the bicycle wheel hub. After the death of his companion in 1911, Sachs led the company on his own; it already had 2 600 employees at the time. Even before the First World War, Sachs opened branch plants near Eger (Bohemia) and in the US. He navigated his company through the inflation and crisis period in the 1920s showing entrepreneurial far-sightedness and flexibility – among others, he sold the ball bearing production to SKF. Sachs also initiated the production of clutches for automobiles. Soon after, he added vehicle engines and shock absorbers.

Sachs remained loyal to the two-wheeler by motorizing it: His company built a lightweight two-stroke engine with 75 cubic meters and 1.5 hp which was installed in almost all small motorized two-wheelers of leading manufacturers from 1932 onwards. With a close-meshed network of service representations, Ernst Sachs ensured that this market success would be sustainable in the long term, before he died in July 1932. His successors continued the business tradition by launching technically innovative products – for two-wheelers as well as for passenger cars and commercial vehicles – and strongly boosting international expansion. After the grandchildren of Ernst Sachs, Gunter and Ernst Wilhelm, sold the family shares in 1976, the company was onwed by various entities; from 1987, Mannesmann held the majority of shares and renamed the company Mannesmann Sachs AG; in 2001, ZF Friedrichshafen AG took over the supplier company, integrating it into the ZF Group.

Jürgen Ulderup, who was born in Lower Saxony in 1910, earned a doctorate in 1934 with his work on global air traffic; still he remained down-to-earth, metaphorically speaking, initially working as a technical employee at various automotive companies. In 1945, he redesignated an existing commercial enterprise of his father and started with the production of metalware in 1947. Initially, the production focused on consumer goods such as pots, tables, cupboards, and daybeds that were rare and in high demand after the World War. Soon Ulderup made use of his contacts in the automotive industry and started to produce vehicle parts for Auto Union, Volkswagen, Daimler-Benz, and Borgward – initially tanks and seat frames; after 1950, he added chassis components. This was followed by a fast regional expansion with additional locations in Dielingen, Damme, and Wagenfeld. In 1963, headed by the sole shareholder and managing director Ulderup, Lemförder Metallwaren AG had become a corporation and started with the production of ball joints. In the same year, license contracts were signed for production in Brazil.

This internationalization became a trademark, supported by the excellent foreign language skills of Ulderup's wife Irmgard: The company expanded to Argentina, Spain, France and Poland, Japan, and the US, with further subsidiaries being established and bundled as Lemförder Group under the umbrella of a holding company. A second outstanding feature was the strong focus on employees: For his "team" – this is how Ulderup always referred to his staff – he introduced numerous incentives and social security measures at a very early stage, among them a company pension scheme that would point the way ahead. The entrepreneur also focused on environmental and nature conservation, establishing the non-profit Dr.-Jürgen-Ulderup-Stiftung [Foundation] for this purpose in 1983. At the end of 1982, the Lemförder Group had more than 4 000 employees achieving a sales figure of DM 500 million. Making long-term plans for his succession, at the beginning of 1984 Ulderup initially sold 51 percent of his group of companies to ZF Friedrichshafen AG which would continuously increase their share in the Group. Ulderup died in 1991. Twelve years later, ZF purchased all shares in the Lemförder Group. In return, the Dr.-Jürgen-und-Irmgard-Ulderup-Stiftung received shares in ZF Friedrichshafen AG amounting to 6.2 percent.

Team player and innovator: Hansjörg Dach

Born in Friedrichshafen in 1928, Hansjörg Dach was drafted – aged 16 – in the last months of the war and became a prisoner of war. Upon his return he completed an apprenticeship as toolmaker at ZF and afterwards studied mechanical engineering at the engineering school in Konstanz. In 1955, he returned to ZF to work as a research engineer. At the time, the engineering staff had a strict hierarchy, with the design engineers being at the top end (working on the drawing board in the office wearing white lab coats), whereas the research engineers wore gray workshop coats, their hands dirty with oil, working on strictly defined series of tests. Back then, you had to show special aptitude in order to be allowed to bypass the hierarchy, which was achieved, for instance, by testing leader Otto Schwab, Dach's direct superior. The technical director Albert Maier, who was at the top of both lines of development, had granted Schwab the right to also do design work. Schwab was convinced by the concept of the hydrodynamic transmission that he considered a promising application both for passenger cars and commercial vehicles. He provided the Board of Management with numerous memorandums and, with his test department, sped up development of the transmissions that he had designed. In this context, Dach was involved in the development of ZF's first automatic passenger car transmission being responsible for its hydraulic control unit. The smooth gear changes that became a characteristic of these new ZF transmissions can also be traced back to Dach's achievements.

In 1966, Dach was appointed chief engineer and testing leader himself; in 1972 he took the position of Head of Development for automatic passenger car transmissions. One of his first actions in office was to eliminate the outdated separation between design and testing – in Dach's department, the two "types of engineers" worked at desks facing each other. Also, they were joined by the production planners, so Dach introduced forms of collaboration that today are known as Simultaneous Engineering and Design for Manufacturing and left their mark on the following 3HP22 and 4HP transmission model ranges.

When the production of automatic passenger car transmissions was gradually relocated to ZF's Saarbrücken location, Dach became Managing Director of the then ZF Getriebe GmbH and a member of the ZF Board of Management. Dach retired in 1989, and in the subsequent years until his death in 2014 he assisted in "restoring" the technological history of ZF Friedrichshafen AG.