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Riding With BMW's Boss in Morocco
Thrashing over the Atlas Mountains with Hendrik von Kuenheim
The title CEO tends to conjure images of three-piece suits, leisurely three martini lunches and first class travel in a rarified air of luxury. This perception is being thoroughly quashed as I ascend the High Atlas Mountains in Morocco, catching a roost of rocks and dirt being kicked up by the rear wheel of the GS 800 in front me, piloted by none other than BMW Motorrad CEO, Hendrik von Kuenheim.
As I watch von Kuenheim wrestle the bike through the massive boulders and rutted terrain I have to marvel at the fact that here we are, thrashing his motorcycles through this remote pass. It is perhaps the most profound display of a company boss’ trust and pride in what he builds.
Out here the corporate subterfuge has been completely removed. The experience is testament not only to the faith von Kuenheim has in his own products, but also–perhaps more poignantly–an example of the new corporate mindset that has dramatically reshaped the iconic German entity into an industry powerhouse, rocking the motorcycle world with a stable of new machines. Those types of radical changes don’t happen by accident in a company as large as BMW, and they sure don’t happen with timid management.
Although more than capable of navigating the staid halls of corporate, von Kuenheim is most at home imbuing the brand he’s been associated with for twenty-five years with his invigorating spirit. As I am witnessing through a cloud of dust, he is a hands-on corporate head that has arrived at his post through hard work and dedication, unafraid to get a little dirty. In a way I wonder if watching von Kuenheim navigate the terrain of Morocco is indicative of the way he manages; strategic planning and confidence coupled with unshakable faith (i.e.; pick a smart line and then grab a handful of throttle).
Hendrik seems to be in constant motion–save the moments he allows himself respite from the grueling pace of the ride, savoring a mint tea at a roadside café. Yet even at these moments, provided he can get a signal on his cell phone, von Kuenheim continues to orchestrate business at the main office back home. Under his leadership, the Munich-based manufacturer has brought to market its most significant machine to date, the S1000RR, a motorcycle that has catapulted BMW into the liter bike spotlight–a previously unimaginable notion. Since taking over the top seat at BMW motorcycles, von Kuenheim has overseen the continuing evolution of BMW’s reinvention, which began several years ago when the company introduced the K-series machines, the HP2 bikes, and acquired legendary marque, Husqvarna. As a result, BMW arguably has the broadest, most diverse line-up of any manufacturer today.
Von Kuenheim started out 25 years ago overseeing the unloading of BMW automobiles from ships in Long Beach Harbor. Since then he has served in various capacities on several continents, gradually ascending the corporate ladder. In 2008 his hard work was rewarded with promotion to Chief Executive Officer for BMW motorcycles worldwide..
Interestingly enough, von Kuenheim says he never aspired to the post, saying it was merely a confluence of good fortune and hard work. At the core of his success was a devotion to the company and passion for its products. In Hendrik’s opinion, the notion of aspiring to the position of CEO in a company or industry that you don’t wholly believe in is a bit disingenuous.
“In 1985,” Hendrik recalls, “when I moved to America, at the time I was 26 years old, my father said, ‘Wherever you live, make sure you live like you live there for the rest of your life. Don’t live out of your suitcase.’ That was the one advice. Then the other advice he gave me is on the job, he says, ‘When you do a job, do the job with the passion, with the love, with dedication, as if you would do this job for the rest of your life.’ And he said, ‘If you can’t do this, if you’re not convinced that you can give it the love and dedication and passion don’t do it, because it’s the wrong job for you.’”
There is no question of von Kuenheim’s passion, love and dedication for BMW. He has been a vital, driving force behind BMW’s dramatic changes over the past few years. Under his watch the company unveiled its most daring departure from convention to date; the S1000RR. The new Superbike stands as the most pronounced statement of change, dramatically altering the public’s perception of the brand.
“If you look at our supersport bike, which we just launched, the S1000RR, the demand is outrageous. The media response has been so outstanding, so positive that it has really inhaled an incredible breath into the perception of the BMW brand. We have a lot of Boxer customers who have always been laughed at by the Japanese supersport customers and now, suddenly, say, ‘Oh wow, you guys not only producing great Boxers but you also producing a supersport bike. Never would have thought that BMW would go all the way.’ The first time around, basically, we’re setting, re-setting, substantially, the benchmark.”
Naturally, with such a substantial overhaul of an established brand, with an equally established customer base, there is the risk of alienating the very crowd that has made BMW what it is - Hendrik is very much aware of this.
“There will be the one odd customer who said, ‘Oh, this is not any modern BMW I used to know,’ yeah, sure. But there’s, on the other hand, we have gained so much more,” says von Kuenheim.
One thing is for sure. Any criticism of BMW being set in its ways, with an unwillingness to evolve, has been squarely debunked in recent years with dramatic–not to mention expensive in terms of R&D–reinvention of itself. The K-series, in-line 4-cylinder technology was a radical move, which the company purposely didn’t present as a possible evolution away from the stalwart Boxer engine, but merely an alternative option. Loyalty to the Boxer platform was reinforced with introduction of the HP2 (high-performance 2-cylinder) models in both off-road and sport incarnations.
“We have just given the Boxer (GS),” von Kuenheim says, “just this month, for North America, the best Boxer engine it ever has. It is more powerful and more faster, it is by far the best Boxer engine ever, period.”
As one might imagine when riding off-road on GS machines with the boss, there is a good deal of talk about the significance and popularity of the GS brand. Hendrik is quick to point out the market share of the GS, which represents between 35-42% of BMW sales.
“Forty percent is a good number, no? Obviously we need to defend this segment,” Hendrik states flatly as he sips at his mint tea. “We will constantly, constantly, constantly update our bike because it is our bread and butter motorcycle. We created the segment and we will defend this. There will be a time coming when even the present GS will have to be replaced by another GS. For this we will take a very long time, to be very, very clear of what we have and which directions we want to go. We know exactly the date when there will be a new GS, this date has been set, it is in the distant future. Still many, many years away, but it will be again an absolute milestone in setting the benchmark again. Let the competition come on, I’m more than happy to take on the competition.”
One evening, after the bikes were parked and the dust and grime of Morocco had been washed off, von Kuenheim talked about the changes in store for not only BMW, but the entire realm of transportation.
“In Europe, which I believe at the moment is on the forefront about emissions and striving this alternative fuels, electric, etc. I clearly see there will be a forever growing demand for urban mobility transportation. I call it vis-a-vis electric-powered motorcycles or scooters. There is a market developing, also pushed by the European governments in this direction. You will see in the future, products that, basically from the ground up, (have) been designed as electric-powered vehicles.”
Another topic that emerged was that of BMW entering the scooter field–an essential market around the world (growing, however slowly, in America).
“You know we have naked bikes, we have enduros–we invented basically the enduro segment–we have sport bikes, we have touring bikes, and in each of those segments we have enormous offering, so we’re well covered. This are really two segments… you call it the scooter market, I call it urban transportation market. Yes, BMW will enter this, and we will enter that market with more than just one model, that is in the relatively near future.”
In addition to these interesting reveals of future entry into electric vehicles and the scooter market, there is a great focus on the North American market.
“The other market is the cruiser market,” says von Kuenheim. “Which is the single largest segment in the world of motorcycles above 500cc. No other segment, not the super sports bikes, not the enduro bikes, nothing is as big as the cruisers. Cruiser is a North American phenomenon. In North America roughly 64 percent of all motorcycles sold above 500cc are cruisers, so we will have to address this sooner or later. How? 100% solution I don’t have yet, but I think 2010 should be the year of our decision.”
Perhaps the most intriguing statement of the entire four-day trip, traveling over 900 kilometers with the boss, was when I asked von Kuenheim about BMW’s entry into World Superbike competition.
“We are here to win, and we stay in until we win. Very clearly this is our determination,” says von Kuenheim.
And on that we headed back toward Marrakesh, me chasing the boss as he piloted one of his GS 800s over the seemingly endless rock-strewn trail. I can only imagine what is in store ahead from this company that has pulled a number of rabbits out of its hat over the last few years.
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