Eberhard von Kuenheim, 75, turned BMW from a small Bavarian manufacturer into a global player.
BMW had 23,000 employees when he became CEO in 1970. The number had risen to 71,000 when he stepped down in 1993. The luxury German automaker employs about 100,000 people today. BMW's annual revenue rose during von Kuenheim's 23-year tenure to E15 billion from E880 million.
In the 1950s and 1960s, BMW produced vehicles in very diverse segments, from the tiny 250cc one-door Isetta to the high-end V-8 507 sports car.
Von Kuenheim redirected BMW's focus toward building only high-quality products.
"We did not even know the term ‘premium' back then, but it describes our approach," von Kuenheim says. "We needed to grow without becoming a mass producer. And we wanted to be among the best."
A vehicle that showcases that dedication was the BMW 750iL, which arrived on the market in 1987.
"We prompted the comeback of the 12-cylinder engine in the industry," von Kuenheim says. "It was a strategic highlight."
Once when asked if BMW needed to form strategic partnerships, von Kuenheim famously said: "At great altitude, the eagle prefers to fly alone."
Born in 1928 to Prussian nobility, von Kuenheim is a veteran of World War II. He studied engineering in Stuttgart after the war.
In 1965, he joined the Quandt Gruppe, BMW's largest shareholder since 1959. He was named CEO of BMW five years later at age 41.
"I was never promoted after I joined the company," he jokes.
Von Kuenheim is reluctant to call himself or any other auto executive a great visionary.
"Strategic decisions are never one man's decision," he says. "There is a chain of decisions, and the strategy is the sum of them. The important thing is to get up and act a bit earlier than others."
Von Kuenheim also advises that even as a CEO, one must pay attention to day-to-day activities. "You have to know what is going on in the company." He brought a spirit of emotional attachment and dedication to the company.
After leaving his CEO post, von Kuenheim guided BMW's supervisory board until 1999. Today he leads the Eberhard von Kuenheim Foundation, which promotes entrepreneurial thinking and awareness.
His former employer provides him with a personal BMW. His favorite? "I enjoy the 530d," he said. "It's a real dream car."