Eberhard von Kuenheim
BOB20 eberhard von kuenheim
Von Kuenheim with a 850i coupe at the North American International Auto Show in January 1990

BMW chairman 1970-93

Lutz says: "Not always a delight to work under, he transformed BMW into a global luxury-car powerhouse."

Lutz grade: 297

One day, in an executive meeting, von Kuenheim asked how many unsold coupes were still in company inventory. I said I hadn't checked recently but believed the number to be around 200. "I'm shocked that you don't know the exact number, Mr. Lutz," von Kuenheim said. "As of this morning we had precisely 207 in our stock." The technique of fishing some arcane bit of information out of a subordinate's area of responsibility and then, in front of others, asking him for precisely that number or fact, is a grossly unfair tactic used by bosses to keep their direct reports fearful. It does nothing for healthy cooperation among the individuals who are supposed to be collectively driving revenue and profit.

My first disagreement with von Kuenheim surfaced almost immediately and, as tensions mounted, my reaction was counterproductive. Feeling frustrated by my inability to connect with him to honestly discuss our work relationship problems, I took to expressing my feelings and anxiety and frustration to my subordinates and colleagues. While they were sympathetic on the surface, it has to be assumed that much of my negative assessment of his leadership style went right back to von Kuenheim. It no doubt worried him, perhaps even caused him to fear that I was plotting to unseat him. Thus, our relationship was trapped in a circularly interactive downward spiral until I accepted an offer from Ford.

I was determined to hate von Kuenheim for the rest of my life, but as the years passed, we often had dinner. I couldn't help liking the older, wiser, more self-confident von Kuenheim. Former colleagues told me he had become more open, more sharing, and less Machiavellian. How good a CEO was he? In a word: miraculous. During his tenure, BMW became one of the world's top three luxury brands. Thus, ruling by secrecy, fear, deft maneuvering, and a sorry lack of trust in his team, the aristocrat-cum-street fighter has to go down as one of the most successful automotive CEOs of all time, based on the wealth he created for shareholders."


  @FortuneMagazine - Last updated June 04 2013 07:34 AM ET
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