Kavish Boodhram
Sustainability 29.01.2024 4 Min.
Interview with the first Environmental Officer: "The company is well positioned!"

+++ Manfred Heller from 1973 at the BMW Group pioneer in a German automotive group +++ Co-founder of today's sustainability strategy +++

Sustainability is an integral part of the strategy of the BMW Group. It forms the basis of its future development and increases the company’s value. An important component of this is ecology, the responsible handling of natural resources. Today, hundreds of employees of the BMW Group work to ensure compliance with environmental goals. But hardly anyone is aware that this began around half a century ago with one person: in 1973, the biologist Manfred Heller was appointed as the first environmental officer at BMW AG. He only left the position when he retired in 2004. During his tenure, he embedded environmental protection so deeply within the company that he can certainly be called one of the founders of the current sustainability strategy. Recently, he paid a visit to his former place of business and answered our questions.

Manfred Heller

Mr. Heller, how was the trip to BMW?

It was only a walk of 400 metres. I live just two blocks from the BMW Headquarters in Milbertshofen. I had originally moved there so I could get to the plant quickly if anything happened. And, well, after I retired, I stayed there. I see the Headquarters and plant almost daily.

Why were you made the first environmental officer at BMW AG around 50 years ago?

There were several factors. Firstly, society as a whole was posing questions regarding the limits to growth.

That was the famous Club of Rome study from 1972.

Right, things like that, for example. There was also a real burden at the site for the residents: for example, through emissions from the painting and enameling, but also through the construction site traffic in the early 1970s during the building of the Headquarters. The board of management saw that the time had come for someone to look after these things full-time.

How did they select you?

I had applied for the position through the normal channels after receiving a tip from colleagues. After studying biology in Hesse, where I am originally from, I had already carried out scientific tests and studies for the Federal Ministry of Health, in West Berlin back then, and had a certain reputation that distinguished me among my colleagues.

Manfred Heller

You had studied biology, microbiology – why did you choose this course of study?

My father was also a biologist. However, his work concerned crop protection and fertilizers in agriculture. That had made an impact on me. I was at boarding school throughout my school years. It was common to do agricultural or manual work while studying there, which may have had an influence on the course of study I chose.

In a few words: what was your task as the environmental officer in the Munich plant?

The construction of an environmental management system, beginning with environmental policy and regulatory law concerning the implementation of guidelines, environmental protection as a management task, proactive prevention of environmental damages, and contingency planning for emergencies. First, we also had to build our own information systems, such as ZEUS (Zentrale Erfassung umweltrelevanter Stoffe, central registration of environmentally relevant substances), which could define processes, specify values, and finally transfer the whole thing into a toolbox of environmental management tools which we use worldwide. Our close cooperation with public relations work was important for maintaining direct lines of communication to the plant’s neighbours.

Have you ever regretted your decision to go into industry at times?

No, never. I always stood behind the company 100 per cent because I love cars. Of course, there were challenges and resistance to overcome. But we have achieved a lot: we built competencies, established mandatory processes, and introduced worldwide standards. I am certain that the BMW Group can still draw on this groundwork today and even enjoys high recognition for it from critical observers. I always wish my successors a lucky hand in this endeavour.

You have not just collected the relevant expertise in a book, but also put it into practise in different institutions.

Right, I am – or rather, was – a founding member and initiator of econsense – a forum for the German economy’s sustainable development, co-initiator of the Bavarian environmental pact, board member of the environmental committee of the Federation of German Industries, chairman of the German Association of the Automotive Industry (VDA) and still active in a whole range of additional functions. The basic idea in doing so was to interconnect the environmental protection developed and practised at BMW with governmental and societal institutions. By doing that, we established standards, not to the disadvantage of our company.

German President Horst Köhler awarded you the Federal Cross of Merit for your activities in 2006.

Yes, an honour I was thrilled to receive.

Are you satisfied with the continuation of environmental protection within the area of sustainability?

Yes, I am. Of course, one must make the differences clear. I began with a small team as the person responsible for environmental protection in the general planning department with Dr Hans Koch, who was member of the board of management at that time, responsible for technology and production. The Dingolfing plant had just been opened and a few months afterwards the energy crisis began with a driving ban on Sundays. But the topic of ecology has grown with the company through different plants in very different countries on five continents. Sustainability is a global topic today that has become firmly established not just in the UN and governments, but also in all large companies worldwide. And the BMW Group is very well positioned here.

Manfred Heller

What sort of car do you drive?

A BMW 1602, a BMW C1 and a BMW 3 Series Touring are in my garage. I recently sold the BMW Z1 that I gained the day I was appointed to the OFK into good hands.

Where do you stand on the topic of electromobility?

I am very happy with the good sales numbers for e-cars, but won’t hide the fact that I see problems with the required raw materials for this technology that are still unsolved. Besides, one has to see things from the customer’s point of view: for 60,000 to 100,000 euros, I expect an all-rounder without limits in regards to range, possible uses, freedom, and security.

So we should remain open to all drive technologies?

Absolutely, that is in any case the most recommendable strategy at this time and for a globally active automobile company.

In 2004, you retired after more than 30 years working for BMW AG. You have not moved away, we know that now. What have you been doing since then?

In summer, I often travel with my BMW racing bike and in winter I go long-distance skiing. During my career, I had to be on call 24-7 for all locations sometimes, and initially needed time to recover from this. Of course, I follow the current developments of the BMW Group in the media and keep myself informed. You never really let go of a job like this.

Mr Heller, thank you for your visit and the interview. 

More topics