Schaeffler is motoring on - and still under the radar

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The management schools of the 1970s and 1980s simply couldn't get enough of an ancient text written 2,500 years ago deep in the heart of China. It was called 'The Art of War' and its author was a tough character called Sun Tzu. The hotshot management theory suggested that Sun Tzu's work incorporated all that was needed for smart strategies to outfox business rivals. They may well have been right, but the only Sun Tzu dictum that I remember from those bygone days was the advice that 'a good commander is benevolent and unconcerned with fame'.

I remembered the quote when I was researching this week's company, the German group Schaeffler AG. Outside its market sector this remarkable operation has managed to do significant things without being noticed. It has become one of the world's largest producers of automotive parts, making it key to the future of transport in the next decade, and maybe longer.

It ranks in the top handful of Germany's most innovative corporations and it has 85,000 employees around the world.

Schaeffler is a global producer of precision components for the auto industry. It also supplies a vast array of transport and construction equipment companies. If something moves, Schaeffler will be there, making it move more smoothly.

Its origins can be traced back to 1883, when it started producing ball bearings. It had an eventful history, some of which, during World War II, bears no scrutiny.

However, its owners in 1946, brothers Wilhelm and Georg Schaeffler, were alive as to how ball bearings could influence the post-war German industrial boom. It picked up some key names in the sector, including majority control of Continental AG, the big German tyre and auto-parts producer. Since then it has reduced its holding below 50pc.

After some deft financial engineering, the company was floated on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange three years ago and Maria-Elisabeth Schaeffler, widow of Georg, became one of the richest people in the world with an estimated wealth of €7bn.

The group operates two business divisions, automotive and industrial. Auto is the largest, with revenues of €10bn, industrial contributing €3bn. A measure of its importance to the motor industry is that some 60 Schaeffler products are in every vehicle on the roads. Based on its bearing expertise the group has also developed a very wide range of components.

Moreover, in anticipation of electric cars, the company expanded its portfolio by acquiring Compact Dynamics, a specialist in high-performance electric motors used in Formula E motor racing.

While its industrial division is the group's smallest, the company offers bearings that find a home in textiles, printing and food machinery. They can also be found in aerospace, aviation and wind energy. Its bearing offerings are vast, ranging from only a few millimetres to large scale bearings of several metres. The group also provides special bearings and high-precision components for the aviation/aerospace industry from Boeing to Airbus and Ariane rockets.

Europe is the Schaeffer's largest market, with more than half of the €13.3bn group revenues. Asia Pacific, including China, contributed 25pc and the US the remainder. However, the group is betting on the US and Chinese market, and is enlarging its footprint in these regions.

The driving force for profits, the automotive division, has shown consistent growth.

Interestingly, the industrial business is showing a small decline and is 'challenging'. It trades on a price-earnings multiple of a modest 10, with a dividend yield of 3.7. The group's financial strength is improving and its debt level is reducing.

These improvements are reflected in its share price which trades at €13.74 above its yearly low of €11.36, but below its year's high of €14.80. Schaeffler is a solid company, will be around for some time and its lack of fame matters very little. Even in this volatile time, the shares are worth considering.

Nothing in this section should be taken as a recommendation, either explicit or implicit to buy any of the shares mentioned.