NASHVILLE, Tenn. - As BMW AG scouted for a U.S. plant site, the company sent two of its bosses to do some research.
Helmut Panke and Bernd Pischetsrieder visited churches. They peeked into backyards. They ate pizza at Mama Rosa's. They parked their minivan at truck stops and stepped inside for coffee.
They wanted to know the soul of the people who were to work at the German automaker's U.S. plant. BMW wanted not just good workers - it wanted good people, too.
BMW ended up picking Spartanburg County, S.C., in 1992. The two scouts have since risen to bigger roles back in Munich - Pischetsrieder as chairman, Panke as a board member. And the plant they helped create now employs 2,000 people.
But Panke hasn't forgotten the lessons from the search. By getting to know the South Carolinian work ethic and moral ethic, BMW dodged a common hazard that trips some companies as they set up new plants in unfamiliar places.
He listed six other hazards in his address to the Automotive News Southeast Conference:
1. Not understanding the motive for acting.
BMW's U.S. plant was a major step toward an international strategy. And it happened because BMW acted on some alarming trends. In the late 1980s, BMW was a small German automaker. Conventional wisdom said small companies wouldn't survive. BMW was hurting in the United States, the world's biggest market. The plant has strengthened BMW in the United States and internationally by sending cars to 100 markets abroad.
2. Not having a long-term strategy.
BMW couldn't transfer its German manufacturing practices to the United States. And it couldn't have separate standards on two continents. So it used the South Carolina plant to create a new common system for the world.
3. Not understanding how the new operation will change a company.
BMW knew its young plant in South Carolina couldn't handle engineering changes in the same way BMW plants in Germany could. So BMW created simpler, more efficient processes in Europe to match those in the United States.
4. Not understanding the impact of actions on the new home.
Lots of states wanted BMW. Some offered juicy tax abatements. BMW turned down some offers because the abatements would have come out of the hide of local schools. Panke said BMW didn't want to hurt education in a potential new home.
5. Forgetting the needs of suppliers.
BMW required that its suppliers be deeply involved in the venture. But it can be tougher for suppliers than it is for automakers to move into a new area. Production glitches can result. Because BMW expected them - and planned for them - the South Carolina production start went smoother.
6. Not accounting for regional differences.
Not all areas of Germany are the same. Neither are those in the United States. Automakers must realize that vast cultural differences can exist, Panke said, even if a new plant is just a few hundred miles away from home.