In his 19-year career at BMW, Norbert Reithofer has worked his way up from maintenance planner to head of production and finally, on Sept. 1, to chief executive. A quintessential BMW man, Reithofer led the company's drive for greater factory flexibility and customization, helping to give the automaker its competitive edge.
Like every successful BMW manager, Reithofer has learned how to build informal networks of associates across the company to make sure his ideas are embraced. And he definitely has a gold-plated network. When Reithofer ran BMW's factory in Spartanburg, S.C., the U.S. chief was Helmut Panke, who was later promoted to CEO. And Reithofer's thesis adviser in graduate school was Joachim Milberg, Panke's predecessor as CEO and now chief of BMW's supervisory board.
But that's not the kind of network that really matters at BMW. While it never hurts to have friends in high places, 50-year-old Reithofer has excelled at forging alliances at all levels. Back in 2002, for instance, he and Development Chief Burkhard Goeschel wanted to halve the time it took to reach full production of the next-generation 3 Series, to three months from six. That would slash startup costs and boost margins by allowing the company to pump more cars onto the market while interest in the new model was still superhot.
Skeptics said it couldn't be done without compromising quality. But Reithofer and Goeschel reached deep into the organization to assemble a team of R&D and production aces who worked for three years to reach their target. The car was introduced in March, and by June the factory was cranking out its full-scale production of 800 cars a day -- with no quality problems. "[Managers] have to be role models and work together," says Reithofer.
As CEO, he will surely seek to keep BMW's managers and factory hands working together to stay ahead of the pack. And Reithofer, it seems, believes the pack will be coming at him from the east. One BMW staffer who has worked with the new chief says he "never spoke about Mercedes (DCX). He was always looking over his shoulder at Toyota (TM)."
Over the next decade, BMW expects Toyota Motor Co.'s Lexus and Nissan Motor Co.'s (NSANY) Infiniti brands to set up plants in Europe and then hire German engineers to work on building cars with BMW-like handling. Within five years, predicts Reithofer, it could be "Lexus that we will be most busy competing with."
By Gail Edmondson