An interview with legendary BMW Chairman of the Board Eberhard von Kuenheim

During his 23 years as Chairman of the Board of Management at BMW AG, Eberhard von Kuenheim played a pivotal role in the company’s success. Today, he talks with us about the risks, the big decisions and the early years of an international brand.

Dirk Bruniecki
Franz Stepan

Is it true to say you were recruited to BMW by Herbert Quandt?
Eberhard von Kuenheim: He didn’t so much recruit me as let the supervisory board know, through the official channels, that he saw me as a potential candidate. The board then made up its own mind!

What kind of company was BMW before the Quandt family came along?
von Kuenheim: We were relatively poor in those days. Today, business is measured in millions or billions – but back in the 1970s, we would spend forever debating an investment of 10,000 deutschmarks. It was a different era. But BMW had an excellent workforce even then, and it was the company employees who persuaded the Quandts of the value of investing in BMW. The development engineers were the ones who convinced Herbert Quandt and his brother that the company had real substance to offer.

What do you remember of your early days as Chairman of the Board?
von Kuenheim: It wasn’t so easy. I had no background in the automotive sector, nor did I come from a large corporation. But at the outset, you often need to spend time getting a feeling for what seems right. Before long, it came down to the fundamental question: what is the essence of BMW… what does the company stand for?

And you had a vision for the strategic alignment of BMW going forward?
von Kuenheim: There’s no such thing as vision. A politician once remarked that anyone with visions should see a doctor. Back then, we were looking for a way forward: working out where we belonged as a company. We could have chosen to become small-car specialists, but we decided against that idea because it didn’t fit BMW. If anything, we wanted to be in the top flight. That’s where we belong.

“Today, business is measured in millions or billions. Back then, we would spend forever debating an investment of 10,000 deutschmarks.”

Eberhard von Kuenheim

What was the most difficult step, in your opinion?
von Kuenheim: Perhaps the most difficult decision – because it required courage – was the move into the Asian market. We spoke no Japanese, barely anyone spoke Thai, and English was not yet the global language of business. Japan was a particular risk, since no other European or American company had established a dealership of its own there in those days. We were the first.

How important has the involvement of the Quandt family been for the company?
von Kuenheim: The key thing has been, and remains, the financial backing that the family has given the company. Its foremost task, even to this day, has been to counter the influence of any unwelcome powers. That gives both the management and the workforce the freedom to get on with their jobs properly – which they do very successfully.

Did you enjoy your time in the role?
von Kuenheim: Yes… I would even go so far as to say it was fun! But fun also calls for a great deal of hard work.

How does it feel to be someone who shaped the history of BMW? Are you, shall we say, a living monument?
von Kuenheim: I’m certainly no monument. I did what I was required to do at the time. And they were exceptional times – the company was in a period of transition. We were still a small firm from Upper Bavaria, and our task was to grow beyond those borders.

How did you handle criticism?
von Kuenheim: I would always try to win over critics – sometimes I succeeded, sometimes not. But success and action will usually bring even the most entrenched skeptic around to your way of thinking.

Eberhard von Kuenheim, 88, was Chairman of the Board of Management of BMW AG for 23 years, from 1970 to 1993. Under his leadership, the successful BMW 5 Series was introduced, along with a new model designation system that remains in use today.