Quality must be felt

Quality must be felt

ŠKODA WORLD

He will be remembered as an approachable, authentic manager who always brought out the best – in the products and his colleagues. Even if that meant being contentious at times. After 42 years with the Volkswagen Group, Frank Schreier, Head of Quality Assurance at ŠKODA AUTO, is retiring.

11. 12. 2020

Frank Schreier loves it – the smell of rubber, metal, plastic and oil. The production noises in the press shop, in the body shop and in the assembly hall. “It was fantastic,” he says enthusiastically over a cup of coffee as he remembers the old days and how it all began – back when Schreier started out in the Volkswagen Group some 42 years ago – where he still works today. Continuously. No head hunter, no matter how lucrative a competitor’s offer, has been able to lure him away over the decades: “In the end, my deep inner conviction of working for the right company has always confirmed my decision to stay here.” This may sound unimaginable to some people today, as Forbes magazine, for example, advises its readers to change employers every three to five years in the pursuit of success.

But exceptions prove the rule, as the saying goes. Even without switching companies, Frank Schreier can look back on an impressive career, during which he has successfully held several positions in Germany and abroad over the years. Most recently, he played a decisive role as head of quality assurance at ŠKODA AUTO. He sums it up, saying, “There are three or four things I am quite proud of,” which is, of course, a considerable understatement. During his time in Mladá Boleslav, he implemented several efficiency programmes, developed a ground-breaking measurement strategy, defined new standards for the Indian and Chinese markets, devised the strategic approach ‘Rethinking quality: using new testing methods’, right up to supporting and shaping the brand’s transformation process towards electromobility and digitalisation – to name just a few of his most notable achievements.

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But Schreier does not boast. The native of Celle, Germany, who first completed a traditional apprenticeship as a toolmaker as a teenager, doesn’t need to. His father commuted 30 kilometres to Wolfsburg every day, which gave him a logical starting point for his own career. Still, he set his sights higher, completing his A-levels then graduating in mechanical engineering – naturally with a scholarship from Volkswagen, where he worked between semesters.

This earned him not only some extra marks but also valuable practical experience, as did his subsequent position as an assembly line shift supervisor – his “most formative” period, he says. Experience, learning things from the bottom up, in Schreier’s view is essential to being a good quality assurer. But that alone is not enough: “Having a keen eye for detail, a passion for precision and perfection is crucial. You have to feel the components, the adjusting forces of the vents, the detents of the pressure switches – quality must be felt.” Frank Schreier says he gets goosebumps when he thinks of propulsion power. And he can now predict paint layer thicknesses and machine clamping forces with an accuracy of a tenth.

This is a result of hard work and ultimately the decisive factor that enables him to be critical, sometimes even contentious in his position: “If you are satisfied with everything as a quality assurer, then you have not done your job. Something that Schreier could not be accused of. Marek Jancák, head of vehicle production at ŠKODA, who worked with him for many years, agrees: “On a professional level, you can never be content if you want to move things forward. Frank Schreier exemplifies this principle. Moreover, he is a person with whom I associate the highest level of competence and absolute professionalism. Our relationship is based on mutual respect and trust. He has helped to shape the unique culture we have at ŠKODA and influenced it in the most positive way.”

marek-jancak-skodaMarek Jancák
Head of vehicle production at ŠKODA AUTO

Occasionally long but always solution-oriented discussions, hard-won compromises and always seeking the best possible outcome for the customer – the quintessence of quality assurance according to Schreier’s understanding, from the very beginning: “We get involved even during the initial concept discussions in the Technical Development department, and then accompany every step of the product creation process”. While Schreier explains the processes and procedures, he uses terms such as “Q-talk” or “Q-management”. These abbreviations are somewhat reminiscent of the famous “Q” department from the James Bond films that always provides the secret agent with the latest high-tech gadgets. And as you listen to him, you get the impression that things run similarly in quality assurance today: “We are talking about much more than fitting, gaps and paint defects. Nowadays we are increasingly dealing with topics like electronics, software, connectivity, artificial intelligence and cybersecurity”. These technologies not only make the vehicles themselves more intelligent but also the processes in quality assurance.

There are many complex issues and constant changes that require openness and flexibility. Qualities that Schreier appreciates in “his troupe”. He likes to give his staff responsibility: “You can’t and shouldn’t want to do everything yourself. If you want to win as a team, you have to trust your employees. That’s the only way you can cultivate future leaders.” Schreier estimates that about 80% of his former assistants have taken a managerial path.

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Just like Radim Lukas, who worked for him from 2007 to 2009. He was 23 when he first met Schreier – and by mistake sat down in his future boss’s chair at the job interview. Luckily, he took it with a sense of humour. Since then, the two have had a close relationship and still maintain regular contact today: “Nothing is impossible – that’s the most important of countless professional and personal insights I have gained from Mr Schreier. I often and very fondly think back to the time we spent together and have to admit that I still miss working directly with him to this day,” says Lukas on the phone. He has since become head of quality assurance for ten SAIC Volkswagen plants in China – just one of the many personal success stories Schreier is “a little proud of”.

He would also be happy to encourage his protégés to work in China for a while if the opportunity arose. He has been there himself over a hundred times for ŠKODA AUTO and admires the speed and the standard of technology in China: “You can’t gain more life experience than in China.” At least that is what he would do if he were 38 again today. He wouldn’t want to miss out on his own experience abroad, either, not for a moment.

In 1996 Schreier went to Bratislava as head of car production at Volkswagen and undertook pioneering work there: as a member of Karl Peter Wilhelm’s team he was responsible for constructing the plant in that city on a greenfield site. Since then, models of the Volkswagen, Audi, Porsche, SEAT and ŠKODA brands have rolled off the assembly line there every year, making Bratislava the only car plant in the world to unite five different brands under one roof. From 2023 the production of the new ŠKODA SUPERB as well as the Volkswagen Passat, whose technical development will also be ŠKODA’s responsibility, will start there.

After being appointed head of car production at Volkswagen AG in Wolfsburg in 2001, Schreier became head of quality assurance at ŠKODA AUTO in Mladá Boleslav for the first time in 2006. From 2011 he worked for SEAT in Martorell, Spain, where he collaborated closely with Matthias Rabe. From 2011 to 2019, Rabe was the Director of Research and Development at SEAT, and he looks back fondly on their working relationship: “Frank Schreier is a quality assurance specialist with heart and soul. I appreciate his passion, his expertise, his holistic view and his absolute reliability. He has always fought extremely hard for the cause; sometimes he was a bit stubborn and we have certainly clashed at times. But in the end, the teamwork was always constructive; it was great fun with him”. And it can also be great fun being around Schreier outside the office, reveals Rabe. More specifically, he can think of one or two impromptu dances on the SEAT party boat at the annual meeting of Golf GTI fans on the Austrian lake Wörthersee: “You probably wouldn’t think that of him, but it’s all part of Frank’s enthusiastic nature.” With Schreier, one of the best is leaving the ship; Rabe is sure of that.

DB2020AL00140_overfullMatthias Rabe
Member of the Board for Engineering at Bentley

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It is therefore not surprising that Schreier’s imminent retirement from working life evokes strong feelings in him. Understandable, as it is no exaggeration to say that he has dedicated a substantial part of his life to the Volkswagen Group. The avowed workaholic was on-site twelve to fifteen hours a day for decades, not to mention the myriad business trips. If you ask him about his home, he has two answers: Firstly, of course, Gifhorn, the home of his family and soon to be his permanent residence again. On the other hand, the Czech Republic – which is why he didn’t hesitate for a second when the former ŠKODA CEO Winfried Vahland brought him back in 2014. As the topic shifts to his time in Mladá Boleslav, Schreier becomes emotional. When asked what he would miss most, he answers: “The people. I will miss them.” Visibly moved, he takes a short break. A moment later, he continues: “I will miss the people and the way we interacted with each other, which we helped to shape. The collaboration among the areas at ŠKODA is very, very good. Exceptionally good. And even though there were frequent internal discussions, they have always stuck together and found a solution together.”

Frank Schreier officially enters retirement in January – after 42 years of service. A decision he made himself; he could have stayed longer. But in this matter, he is certain: “No, that’s enough for me. Now it’s my family’s turn.” Of course, he finds it difficult to let go. Still, the fact that a competent successor is taking over the management of quality assurance at ŠKODA AUTO makes it a little easier for him to say goodbye: “I know that Florian Weymar will continue to run the area in my spirit. That is why I can walk home with a clear conscience.”

DSC7483aFlorian Weymar
Frank Schreier's successor as Head of Quality Assurance at ŠKODA

Incidentally, “walking” is a very apt word, as Schreier has a personal mission: to walk the Way of St. James once, on foot all the way to Galicia in Spain. “I think this will help me to bridge the gap between my very committed professional life and retirement.” Both to find himself and consciously enjoy the silence – even if he prefers the production noise in the press shop, body shop and assembly hall. And when he finally reaches the famous cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, the moment will no doubt be something Frank Schreier can be “a little proud of”.