Eberhard von Kuenheim led Bavarian Motor Works’ (BMW) transformation from a specialty German car manufacturer into a world class luxury brand. Von Kuenheim served BMW for nearly three decades and is one of the longest serving executive board chairs in the history of the industry.
Von Kuenheim was born to royalty in Judyty, East Prussia (modern day Poland) on October 8, 1928. His family had to abandon their estate during World War II and they landed in Stuttgart, Germany.
In 1948, von Kuenheim was employed as a worker and trainee at the Bosch Cooperation. In 1950, he enrolled at the Stuttgart Technical College and earned a degree in machine tool engineering. While in school, von Kuenheim was hired by the Max Muller Machine Tool Factory in Hanover, first as a sales engineer, and was later promoted to technical manager.
In 1965, he joined Quandt Gruppe, BMW’s largest shareholder. In 1967, Herbert Quandt, chairman of the Supervisory Board, assigned von Kuenheim to oversee a troubled machine tool company, Industrie-Werke Karlsruhe, which he quickly returned to profitability. In 1969, Quandt appointed von Kuenheim chairman of BMW’s Executive Board. The decision bewildered the industry and angered the company’s top brass, who deemed the young engineer unqualified.
Under von Kuenheim’s leadership, BMW began to concentrate on high-performance, high-quality products. Within his first decade, he established BMW Motorsports and introduced the outstanding BMW 5 Series, the standard which guided the BMW brand forward. Von Kuenheim also opened a new factory in Dingolfing, Germany and built an assembly plant in South Africa. After acquiring a new international distributor, Max Hoffman, BMW of North America was established in 1975. The same year, BMW also debuted the affordable 3 Series, which required the company to mass produce this highly popular new product. A year later, the company added the 6 Series Coupe, and in 1977, completed the lineup with the premium luxury 7 Series.
Von Kuenheim continued to surpass expectations. In the early 1980s, he developed the “sport luxury” vision, which inspired the company to create a Formula 1 racing team. In 1981, von Kuenheim opened a BMW sales company in Japan, which was, at the time, the first fully–owned subsidiary of a European car company in the country.
He put a premium on collaboration and formed close relationships with his suppliers: Bosch, Siemens, and Zahnradfabrik. This created a strong sense of loyalty between the companies. By 1992, BMW had expanded from 23,000 employees and $1.4 billion in sales to more than 71,000 employees, with sale profits of $31.2 billion.
In 1993, von Kuenheim retired as the company’s CEO, but continued to serve as chairman of the Supervisory Board until 1999. In retirement, he founded the Eberhard von Kuenheim Foundation to promote and develop outstanding executive and entrepreneurial thinking. Throughout his 29 years at BMW, von Kuenheim created an everlasting legacy and set the standard for the company and its products.