BMW's new U.S. boss wants to build a bridge to dealers
Ludwig Willisch, BMW: "I can put myself into a dealer's shoes. I can say, 'This is the issue and our view on it and how can we get this sorted out?'"
Having spent years running dealerships and even working as a car salesman, Ludwig Willisch, BMW of North America's new CEO, figures he can repair BMW's bruised relations with its U.S. retailers.
Willisch, who has been in the job since Oct. 1, says he wants to have "the most satisfied customers and to be the most motivated team" in the luxury car segment. To get there, BMW must include dealers in its decisions.
"It is not us and them," he says. "It should be us -- everyone."
Willisch, 55, a German-born executive, climbed the BMW ranks for 15 years. He speaks nearly flawless English, has a dry wit and races cars as a hobby. He replaced Jim O'Donnell, the feisty Scot who retired last summer.
O'Donnell led BMW of North America through the recession. To cut costs he slashed lease volume, reduced incentive spending and cut the warranty labor reimbursement. He also lowered the base dealer margin and made dealer bonuses harder to earn.
The changes angered dealers who complained about a lack of communication with the factory. BMW has ranked near the bottom in the National Automobile Dealers Association's Dealer Attitude Survey in recent years. The twice-yearly survey measures dealers' satisfaction with their manufacturers' policies, field and headquarters staff and franchise value.
On the question of how well dealer input is considered, BMW and Mini ranked last in the winter 2011 attitude survey, according to NADA.
Willisch says one of his first actions as CEO was calling Damon Shelly, chairman of the BMW National Dealer Forum. Willisch also has met with the BMW and the Mini dealer forums and visits local dealers when on the road.
Willisch says his approach is: "Let's talk and see what issues we find and what we can do together.
"I have worked in a dealership and as a dealer principal for a long time and in my early days I worked as a salesman," he said. "I am knowledgeable about the retail business."
From 1979 to 1995, Willisch worked at an Audi, Volkswagen and Porsche group dealership in Germany in retail and wholesale sales.
"I can put myself into a dealer's shoes," he says. "I can say, 'This is the issue and our view on it and how can we get this sorted out?'"
Shelly, who owns two BMW stores in California, has worked with several heads of BMW's U.S. operations since acquiring his first store in 1990.
"We haven't seen a lot yet, but the dialogue has been encouraging," he says. "He seems to realize that a positive relationship with dealers is good for the brand."
A real drag
Willisch attended NADA's presentation of its latest study at BMW offices. Shelly said BMW's rating "is still really lagging and really awful -- it is ultimately a real drag on the brand."
Willisch began his BMW career in 1996, running the company-owned dealership in Dusseldorf, Germany. He has headed BMW sales subsidiaries in Sweden, Japan and Germany and been in charge of sales for the 28 European markets outside Germany. Willisch also ran the M performance unit for two years.
He starts his new job at a time when BMW is leading in U.S. luxury car sales and is likely to take the No. 1 spot from Lexus this year. It's a title archrival Mercedes-Benz has coveted since it lost the crown to Lexus in 1999.
"I would be lying if I said we wouldn't go for that," Willisch says.
But he says BMW won't buy the title. Shortly after his arrival he asked for incentive spending figures to make sure. Through October, BMW has spent 10 percent less on incentives than it did in 2010, he said.
Says Willisch: "We won't do any silly things."
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