BMW's Willisch: A farm boy who wears Hermes ties

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Ludwig Willisch, the always well-turned-out CEO of BMW of North America, began his automotive career as a Porsche salesman in Germany in 1979 while still in college. He later sold Volkswagens and Audis before joining BMW in 1996, running the company-owned dealership in Dusseldorf, Germany.

Willisch has headed BMW sales subsidiaries in Sweden, Japan and Germany and been in charge of sales for the 28 European markets outside Germany. He also ran the M performance unit for two years.

"My life changed when I became the president of BMW Rover Sweden in the late '90s," he said. "Ever since then, things have moved so that I am sitting here as the head of the Americas."

Ludwig Willisch
Title: CEO, BMW of North America (since 2011)
Age: 57
Family: Married, 1 son
Nationality: German
Home: Old Greenwich, Conn.

In what part of Germany did you grow up?

In Cologne. My parents had a farm.

You worked on the farm?

Well, sometimes on holidays.

What kind of farm was it?

It had basically everything. We had sugar beets, all sorts of wheat, apples, cows and pigs.

So it was a commercial farm?

It was quite commercial.

What was it like to grow up on a farm?

A lot of things that were natural to me probably were not natural to people who live in a big city. For instance, I fell in love with driving a tractor. When I was little, I always had to stand up to drive a clutch. Little Ludwig would drive this big tractor.

What do you like to drive now?

I like driving race cars, or anything with four wheels -- it doesn't matter what. Not two wheels. I do not want to prove the laws of physics with a bike.

What do you do to relax?

With my wife, I cook, talk, read and play a little golf -- she always beats me.

How does the Connecticut lifestyle suit you?

I have nice neighbors. I swim in Long Island Sound. I was still swimming in October. It is an instant holiday for me. I wind down driving home, and then I take a swim for 20 minutes and it is relaxing. But I make the mistake of pulling out the barbecue and then going swimming so I am always thinking about the barbecue while I'm in the water. It is like a magnet. My wife says I swim back faster than I swim going out.

You grill a lot?

Yes. Steak, sausages and fish.

How have you changed in the United States?

I have become more casual.

Your style of dress is anything but casual. It's sophisticated.

I was brought up that way.

You have an impressive collection of Hermes and other designer ties.

I have two sisters who always give me ties. So does my wife, and my son when he does not know what else to give me as a present. My sisters give me what they think little brother can wear. I am the youngest. I also have a brother, but he doesn't give me ties.

How about movies -- have you seen any good ones lately?

Rush. I thought it was pretty authentic. I was impressed with how well it was done. My wife was at the Nurburgring track when the [Niki Lauda] crash happened.

What gets your goat?

People making the same mistake twice and people not being truthful, telling you the issues but telling you BS.

What keeps you up at night?

To be frank, sales numbers.

You can reach Diana T. Kurylko at dkurylko@crain.com. -- Follow Diana on Twitter


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