Dr. Walter Hasselkus

Few leaders have held such prestigious positions for so long and still kept their humility. From winning BMW Scotland’s hearts over challenging apartheid and meeting Prince Charles, this really is a fascinating story of a man who helped make BMW what it is today.
I met with Dr. Walter Hasselkus to talk about how business at the top of the tree has changed throughout the last five decades.
(Inteview date: 03/02/2016)

Walter thanks for finding time for us. Your career spans over 45 years and you have held consecutive executive roles since heading up BMW GB in 1981. How has running a company changed throughout this period?

The working tempo was definitely cosier back then and everything took a lot longer. There were no 24/7 phone lines and, when abroad, one was simply not available.

Technology has obviously come on a long way. You have to imagine a BMW without any PCs. A team of back-office workers would type up our long-term strategies on so-called IBM spherical-head typewriters.

The actual mechanics of running a business however, have remained very similar. The process of creating a winning strategy is much the same as 40 years ago.

You have been responsible for BMW UK, BMW South Africa, Rover Group and were also a member of the BMW board in Munich.
How did you find the right balance between implementing BMW culture and adapting to the local environment?

Naturally, large established corporations have their own culture. BMW is no exception and that is a good thing. The behaviour, which led to the current Diesel scandal at VW would, for instance, have been nigh on impossible at BMW; certainly extremely difficult.

As chairman of the executive board, Herr von Kuenheim set very clear expectations. Bribery, coercion, deception and everything of that kind were an absolute no-go.

Before we were at the top, everyone at BMW worldwide shared the same burning target to become number one in the Premium car sector. At the same time, we always saw it as a priority to respect national and local interests.

Due to the politics, apartheid, black-unions and so on, our corporate culture in South Africa was completely different to the BMW Germany culture.
Whilst many companies were deciding to close down their operations in South Africa, we decided it would be in the best long-term interest for this country if we stayed.
BMW HQ simply said: 'you need to make sure that you get on with the situation.'

In the 80s and 90s the BMW National Heads had a lot of freedom and carried a lot of responsibility. Our advertising agency in Great Britain, WCRS, was and still is outstanding. They created British advertisements, which spoke straight to the heart of our target customers.

The colleagues at HQ will of course always want to call all the shots. I, however, am still of the opinion that one needs to rely on businessmen abroad and not yes-men following orders.

Corporate culture is very important as a base and a guideline, but local, national, entrepreneurial business sense and action are more important than ever.

Your résumé is impressive, but what makes you stand out in the crowd is the loyalty of your teams and your reputation as an honest fair-player.
Do you think honesty and humility have been your success factors or was it challenging to stick to your principles throughout your career?

Perhaps a little of both, for me it was certainly a success factor. Everyone has their strengths and you’re right, I do try to connect to people and be open. I value honesty a great deal, which is not necessarily the norm these days.

I try to encourage decision-making by showing empathy and listening.

On the other hand, with too much empathy, one runs the danger of not having a firm enough hand, for instance to let certain people go or to make an unpopular decision.
My approach was perfect for BMW GB and BMW South Africa, whereas at Rover, I may have needed to have been firmer on occasions.

I would imagine that most BMW UK customers today would see their car as a very German product. Were things so different back then?

Looking back at BMW GB in 1981, which had previously been managed by an importer and had only been a BMW daughter company for a year, people were still asking the question whether it made sense at all to send a German to the UK to lead this new company.

My language skills were atrocious, but it didn’t take long to find out that my colleagues and our dealers all shared a common goal and I felt no resistance regarding my integration, on the contrary, I felt we got on very well.

And how did we Brits receive the new boss sent from Munich?

A good example would be our first Dealer Convention in 1981, which took place on the Bahamas (our importer had always had a preference for impressive locations). Everyone was eager to judge BMW’s first major event, and also of course to judge their new boss.

At the end of the two day event, BMW's largest Scottish dealer and I were in the sea, bucket in hand throwing water at each other. That most definitely had a positive impact on my career. The British humour is simply different to our own.

I left BMW GB after three years and there was a big leaving party. One of the employees from our stores came to me and said “Sir, it was a pleasure working for you”, whilst all the female members of staff lined up in a row for a farewell kiss on the cheek.

It sounds strange today, but I think it shows just how good our team spirit was.

You must have seen a lot of people come and go throughout the years. Do you have any pointers for people on the other end of the career ladder regarding how to act when presenting to a board for the first time?

I completely understand the question. Of course, some are cooler by nature than others, but even the strongest nerves will be tested when you stand in front of a panel like the BMW board for the first time.

It certainly helps to find out in advance how the chairman of the meeting ticks. Do they prefer short, concise information or detailed explanations? Do they have a sense of humour?

Are there any classic fauxpas one should avoid?

It happens so often that the presenter doesn’t understand the presentation tools. I don’t know how often I have seen a projector malfunction. The golden rule in such cases is to keep a cool head, but this is not easy when you are already nervous.

Another common problem is time management. One wants to make sure the audience has understood one’s message. The danger is to create too many slides taking-up valuable time to answer questions.

If you have a 30 minute slot, plan to fill just 15. Over half of the speeches I have heard in my life, and there were hundreds, went on too long.

From Prince Charles to Nelson Piquet, you have met so many impressive individuals along the way. Who were your own role models and which meetings moved you the most?

Early in my career, Mr Schoenbeck was BMW's Sales and Marketing Director and was certainly a role model to me. A highly educated man who will turn 94 this year. He left a lasting impression.

Regardless with whom he spoke, he gave them his undivided attention, because what they told him was of immense importance. To listen to someone and make them feel significant is highly motivating. I learnt a lot from him.

Herr von Kuenheim was also a great role model. His exceptional self-discipline, honesty and integrity certainly left a lasting impression.

To be told, as a normal citizen by Prince Charles that he “couldn’t agree more” was of course a great experience, but I think the most touching moments in my career came in South Africa.

Various events were organised when I left, one of which was for the 2000 employees on the factory line. 99% of them were black and apartheid was still very much an issue. We had made a conscious choice that it would be better for those employees if we stayed in South Africa.

The most emotional moments were with the simplest employees. That might sound arrogant, but I received a leaving letter from the so-called black workers union, which still moves me to this day when I read it. Then when I walked out through the factory, one of the workers stopped me and asked “Doctor, when you leave, who is going to care for us?”

If you could do it all again, is there anything you would change?

Naturally, I had imagined a different departure from Rover.
I joined the BMW board as a member without a resort. The plan was that I should become the HR Director, which I would have thoroughly enjoyed, without the immense pressure related to an operational role.

It may well have been more pleasant, but if I am honest, when Bernd Pischetsrieder asked whether I would like to do the Rover job, I was really happy. For one, I stood behind the Rover decision, and also because it was an enormous challenge and I thought: 'you can do it!’

It might not have turned out how we had wished in the end, but there were many very positive experiences and we achieved a great deal.

Walter – have you made it?

I joined BMW in 1976 and took a long look at myself and then a long look at the company. I asked myself – what can you become here?

I told myself you can definitely achieve a division head role – that’s the top 50 people in the company.
Then I said, if you are lucky, you might make it to the board. One of the top 6, which is not easy for a lawyer. There are only three realistic options: HR, Sales, maybe Finance.

Head of the board was a leap too far for me. The Reitzles and Pischetsrieders of this world are different. It was always clear to me they would join the board and one day run their own.

So when I joined the board, I have to admit I told myself “you have made it”.
But the real confirmation of success came just a few weeks ago when my granddaughter gave me a T-Shirt with the phrase printed on it “Living Legend in Retirement”