Panke: Under-Rated as Auto Industry Leader

When the top auto industry talents are rattled off for a new job as in

When the top auto industry talents are rattled off for a new job as in “Who Could Fix GM?” or “Who Could Fix Ford?,” the same three names inevitably come up: DaimlerChrysler CEO Dieter Zetsche, Volkswagen brand chief Wolfgang Bernhard and Renault-Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn. Few ever mention BMW CEO Helmut Panke. And I can’t understand why.

After several weeks of speculation that Panke might have his contract extended beyond this year (BMW says you retire at 60), the decision was made this week to elevate production chief Dr. Norbert Reithofer. Reithofer is a very strong manager. But Panke will be missed.

Panke was chief fnancial officer at BMW back in 1999 when the supervisory board ousted CEO Bernd Pischetsrieder and Technical chief Wolfgang Reitzle. Dr. Joachim Milberg was made CEO. And when Milberg retired pre-maturely because of health issues in 2002. Panke was an architect of the plan to sell off MG Rover, which sunk Pishetsrieder’s career at BMW and dragged down BMW for five painful years. And he was also the prime mover in deciding to jettison Land Rover to Ford and to keep the MINI brand. Both decisions turned out to be excellent.

Like Zetsche, Panke is notable for his “coach-like” management style, a stark contrast to other German CEOs like Juergen Schrempp and Ferdianand Piech. And, also like Zetsche, he does not insist on the trappings of an entourage when he moves around, nor does he ration his access to the media like royalty. For a man educated as a physicist and running arguably the most admired car company in the world, he is a very regular, approachable man. For both the media, and employees, he has been a good teacher.

When I have left a dinner or session with Panke that included other reporters, it is often said afterward among ourselves…”That guy is scary smart.” His time and attention has always been sought by reporters, not just because of his position, but for what he could teach you. He also has one of the most charming senses of humor I’ve ever come across.

So, why doesn’t he get more respect? It could be an attitude that has followed him since he took over. I asked one of his peers in the German auto industry back in 2002 what he thought of Panke’s ascension. The answer: “Let’s see how a finance guy does running a company that is product focused.” That doesn’t do Panke justice. BMW is perhaps the strongest training ground for executive talent in the industry. He isn’t a “finance guy.” But he is a guy who knows his way around the balance sheet as well as any CFO. There’s a difference.

What I respect about Panke is how well rounded he is. He has encyclopedic knowledge of BMW product. When I discussed the 1 Series with him a few years ago, he waxed on in great detail about the dimensions of the car, compared with the legendary BMW 2002. He knew it all in stunning detail. Want to talk about brand and marketing? Panke defers to no-one when it comes to defining the BMW brand. That’s why he was so adamant in selling off MG Rover and Land Rover, which he viewed as inconsistent with BMW’s image.

Panke uses an metaphor to explain why he wanted to put the whole Rover mess behind the company and move on. The simplicity of it is striking. “It’s like you have a cuckoo clock that won’t work, so you spend Saturday morning fixing it. A week later, it needs more fixing. A week later more fixing. You find you are spending far too much time on this clock rather than the things you enjoy and that are good for your family. So, enough already! Get rid of it. It’s not worth it.” That is a philosophy that should be applied in Detroit where restructurings seem to be played out in multiple act plays over countless years.

Panke has been a tireless defender of BMW head designer Chris Bangle since Bangle began making over BMW’s design scheme starting with the 2001 7 Series, which angered a lot of BMW fans for its controversial rear-end styling. The truth is that Toyota and even Mercedes have since copied elements of Bangle’s designs. The company has prospered in sales and profits. Panke has been visionary.

We know that Bill Ford has asked both Zetsche and Ghosn if they were interested in running Ford. I suspect, though, that Bill has never approached Panke. Too bad. There are probably all sorts of non-compete reasons why Panke can’t advise Ford, or GM, after he retires. He’ll probably be on BMW’s supervisory board. Either company would do well, though, to at least make the call.

He is far more than just “a finance guy.”

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