For BMW AG, a U.S. auto plant was the first step into a new era. Building its South Carolina factory in the early 1990s helped embolden BMW to take other leaps, such as acquiring the Rover Group in 1994, and now, apparently, Rolls-Royce Motor Cars.
'The decision to move outside Germany to South Carolina, and the positive experience there - those were the first steps toward a new way of thinking in the company,' says Helmut Panke, a member of BMW AG's board of management. Now in charge of personnel policies and labor relations, Panke headed the team that chose the U.S. site in 1992.
'We have learned from this experience in South Carolina that (deciding where to put a plant) is not just a technical decision. It is based on trying to understand people, their ethics, their values, the political situation, the political business realities in the various states,' Panke says.
BMW adopted a new, team-oriented approach in South Carolina that can be used in other BMW plants, he says. Some of the biggest lessons came from the plant's new ways of managing people.
The Spartanburg County, S.C., operation, which is nonunion, was built under his leadership as chairman of BMW (US) Holding Corp. He was promoted to the parent company board in July 1996.
'Our thinking has been widened and opened, to a more diversified way of thinking .... This has quickened BMW's actions - for instance, the decision to acquire Rover at the beginning of 1994.'
For the South Carolina plant, BMW hired employees of all work backgrounds: from the Big 3, from transplants, from different industries. But most of the new employees had no manufacturing experience.
'From these, we formed a coherent, team-oriented organization where the values were BMW values,' Panke says. 'This has affected how we approach the integration of Rover, without destroying its British culture,' he says. 'Now, we are looking forward to Rolls-Royce culture, and Rolls-Royce products becoming another part of the BMW family of products.'