Eberhard v. Kuenheim set a pivotal course for the BMW Group over three decades: with clear principles, extraordinary discipline and strategic vision. The growth into a global corporation that the company and all its employees enjoy today is entirely due to his work. On 2 October 2023, he celebrates his 95th birthday.
On 1 January 1970, aged just 41, Eberhard v. Kuenheim became Chairman of the Board of Management of BMW AG. At the time, he was the youngest head of a large German industrial company. BMW AG had some landmark decisions to make following the economic success it enjoyed from the Neue Klasse and its strong growth during the 1960s. The company’s structure had not kept pace in many aspects. Significant reorganisation was essential to secure future and further growth.
REALIGNMENT BRINGS STRUCTURE AND GROWTH.
The reorganisation included allocating tasks and responsibilities, the strategic direction of the company and the central functions. During v. Kuenheim’s tenure, groundbreaking decisions were made on new plants as well as establishing the iconic BMW production system. The opening of the new plant in Dingolfing in 1973 was a particularly courageous step. And not without its controversy – in the midst of the first major oil price crisis, including a ban on Sunday driving, many at the time were predicting the imminent demise of the automobile.
After overcoming the crisis, the new plant, which was pushed through against all odds, was an outstanding starting base, became the engine for growth and was the largest BMW plant for decades. It was only recently that the American plant in Spartanburg took this position over and, almost inevitably, like the Regensburg, Wackersdorf, Eisenach, Rosslyn and the planning of the Landshut plant, it was conceived during v. Kuenheim’s time at the helm.
“We are often attributed with entrepreneurial instinct, and when it proves to be right and beneficial, we may even speak of a vision in retrospect,” said Eberhard v. Kuenheim. His entrepreneurial instinct has proven time and time again to be correct. He made groundbreaking decisions for the company’s success today – as can also be seen here in the image: Inauguration of the Dingolfing plant in 1973. This symbolises the origin of the iconic BMW production system.
At the same time, the way vehicle development is organised also changed during this period, combined with introducing modern business management methods. The architectural expression of this reorganisation was the FIZ (Research and Innovation Centre, formerly “Research and Engineering Centre”), which opened in 1990. Here, for the first time, all functions involved in a vehicle project worked together, irrespective of where they were organisationally assigned. The FIZ building was designed to facilitate collaboration with its honeycomb-shaped floor plan and short paths, following the basic architectural “built communication” concept. As such, it also represents Eberhard v. Kuenheim’s fundamental belief that communication is a central task of a company and its management.
1978 saw the birth of the idea of today’s FIZ. Pictured here: Eberhard v. Kuenheim with the model of the building.
NEW MODELS AND LAUNCH INTO THE UPPER CLASS.
Further visionary and strategically astute corporate decisions were made when a new product designation was being sought for the new BMW mid-size class that would succeed the Neue Klasse in the early 1970s. At that time, the Board of Management, under Eberhard v. Kuenheim’s leadership, decided for the first time to use a three-digit combination of model series and engine capacity. At that time, the mid-range started with the BMW 520i, the small series became the BMW 3 Series, and the larger model, still in planning, would begin with the number 7.
The first BMW 520i (E12) rolls off the production line at the BMW plant in Dingolfing – the beginning of a huge success story.
The Board of Management’s decision explicitly stated that this should leave enough space below the 3 Series, above the 7 Series and in between for later expansion of the model range. The system proved to be far-sighted and the principle has held good for 50 years now. The BMW brand firmly established itself in the automotive upper and luxury class with the introduction of the BMW 7 Series, and in particular through the 1987 luxury 12-cylinder 750i model that caused a worldwide sensation.
INTERNATIONAL DISTRIBUTION AND GLOBAL PRODUCTION.
In the 1970s, BMW AG under Eberhard v. Kuenheim also reorganised sales on the international markets. Dedicated sales companies in key markets reduced the dependence on importers, which had been common until then, and meant the company could deepen its understanding of the wishes of its international customers.
But internationalisation was not limited to sales. The ongoing process of globalised production began with the Rosslyn plant in South Africa via the Spartanburg plant in North America, following the principle that still holds true today: “Production follows the market”.
Tribute to Eberhard von Kuenheim from 100 BMW dealers in South Africa
The course that v. Kuenheim set continues its influence to this day, ensuring continued success in the American market and providing the template for the important expansion into China in the early 2000s. It also ensured that the BMW Group is more profitable and more independent of global economic fluctuations than many of its rivals.
Handshake between Eberhard v. Kuenheim and George Bush.
Behind it are v. left to right: US Consul General Andrew G. Thoms, US Ambassador Robert M. Kimmitt, Richard Gaul, Helmut Panke, Hans Graf von der Goltz, US President George Bush, Bernd Pischetsrieder, Karl Gerlinger, Craig Helsing.
INNOVATIVE ENTREPRENEURSHIP IN THE DETAIL AS WELL.
As well as the major initiatives on model policy, sales and internationalisation, BMW AG under Eberhard v. Kuenheim also frequently took innovative and new paths in the smaller details. This was always against the background that BMW AG was a relatively small car manufacturer – with disadvantages in terms of unit numbers, but advantages in terms of agility. The company frequently exploited this agility and gained competitive advantage. For example, v. Kuenheim’s approval for an expanded motorsport commitment in the early 1970s was accompanied by a request for a contribution to financing. The solution saw the founding of BMW Motorsport GmbH in 1972 and the BMW M models introduced carrying the BMW motorsport genes. This gave rise to a model family of particularly sporty, image-boosting and high-yield BMW M vehicles. So successful was this idea that it has subsequently been copied by all rivals.
“If you want something new, you need the courage to experiment,” said v. Kuenheim.
Eleven years after BMW M Motorsport GmbH was founded, Nelson Piquet won the Formula 1 World Championship with Brabham-BMW. He was the first world champion to win with a turbo engine.
COOPERATION FOR THE BENEFIT OF ALL EMPLOYEES.
Under v. Kuenheim’s far-sighted leadership, the company’s turnover rose from 1.7 billion Deutschmarks in 1970 to more than 31 billion in 1992 – a more than 18-fold increase. The workforce more than tripled from an initial 23,000 to almost 74,000 in his last full financial year. Constructive cooperation with the workers’ representatives, in particular Works Council chairman, Kurt Golda, has always been a feature of the companys expansion.
Prestigious visitor at BMW: Eberhard v. Kuenheim, Federal Labour Minister Walter Arendt and Works Council chairman Kurt Golda. Constructive cooperation with employee representatives has always been a factor of the success of the BMW Group.
Among many other things, they developed an innovative working time model together. It severed the link between machine running times and working hours, offering an innovative solution which enabled industrial manufacturing to continue even in high-wage countries. All employees at BMW AG started to share in the company’s success from 1973 during Eberhard v. Kuenheim’s tenure.
Moving things forward, trying new ways, building on people’s own strengths and always acting with an entrepreneur’s eye – these are still very much v. Kuenheim’s guiding principles today. This understanding could and should also guide action in solving social problems. After departing from the BMW AG Supervisory Board, Eberhard v. Kuenheim created a foundation to move this understanding forward. Since May 2016, all of the Foundation’s activities have been pooled in the BMW Herbert Quandt Foundation.
It would be very difficult to overstate the significance of Eberhard v. Kuenheim’s era on the BMW Group. Many of his decisions and the entrepreneurial course set under his leadership had a long-term effect – in many cases still lasting today. In all, he shaped the path of the company for 29 years: 23 of those as Chairman of the Board (1970-1993) and then 6 years as Chairman of the Supervisory Board (until 1999). “You have been a great boon for Bayerische Motoren Werke,” said Stefan Quandt, marking the 90th birthday of v. Kuenheim five years ago. This remains just as true today.
Eberhard von Kuenheim on BMW R 75/5