DETROIT -- The rough treatment Wolfgang Bernhard received at Mercedes-Benz would not have occurred at BMW, says Eberhard von Kuenheim, the former CEO of BMW AG.
In February, Bernhard was named Juergen Hubbert's successor as the head of Mercedes-Benz. But the job was yanked from Bernhard by DaimlerChrysler AG's supervisory board just two days before he was to begin.
"At BMW such things could not happen," said von Kuenheim, who led BMW from 1970 to 1993, then headed its supervisory board until 1999.
Von Kuenheim, 75, was interviewed Tuesday, Oct. 5, in Detroit, where he was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame.
The next day, Volkswagen AG said it had hired Bernhard to run the group's Volkswagen brand.
One key to BMW's success is that its board discusses issues until it reaches a consensus, von Kuenheim said. When it comes to management changes, he said: "We always must remember that there is a human being that is affected by such decisions."
Bernhard was reportedly dropped for his abrasive style and his opposition to Chairman Juergen Schrempp's plan to invest an additional $7 billion into ailing Mitsubishi Motors Corp.
The board voted not to give more money to Mitsubishi.
The industry is seeded with executives who passed through BMW, many during von Kuenheim's tenure. The list includes General Motors Vice Chairman Robert Lutz; Adam Opel AG CEO Carl-Peter Forster; Wolfgang Reitzle, the former head of Ford Motor Co.'s Premier Automotive Group; and Volkswagen CEO Bernd Pischetsrieder, the man who hired Bernhard.
BMW's popularity as a company for which to work allows it to hire the best people. But it also means that some leave for top jobs at other companies.
"There is room for some to become chairman and CEO but not for 10,000," von Kuenheim said. As such, the company is popular with executive headhunters, he said.
Von Kuenheim shoulders the responsibility for the firing of Pischetsrieder from BMW in February 1999 in the wake of mounting losses at Rover.
Now Pischetsrieder works in a more difficult world than his time at BMW because of Volkswagen's size and partial ownership by the German state of Lower Saxony, he said.
"How to lead and manage in that environment is so different," von Kuenheim said. Pischetsrieder's biggest task is to "bring Volkswagen back to the area of the market where it really belongs," von Kuenheim said.
Under former Volkswagen CEO Ferdinand Piech, who heads VW's supervisory board, the automaker expanded its lineup to compete against luxury brands such as BMW.
A year ago it launched the Phaeton sedan, which carries a $68,865 base price in the United States, including destination charge. Phaeton sales are well below expectations globally.
Said von Kuenheim, "When you go to McDonald's, you don't expect the quality of a French restaurant."
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