Fuelling success at BMW Group Asia

The key lessons that Axel Pannes, Managing Director of BMW Group Asia, has learnt from international markets are not going to waste. He uses that experience and the full potential of every employee to steer company growth. HRM finds out more.

You have been working with the BMW Group for over a decade now. How did the organisation manage to retain you for so long?

I did not think that I would stay longer than 10 years within one company in the beginning. At most companies, a typical employee would stay for an average of three years. However, this isn’t the case for BMW. What drives my motivation is having a senior leader who can offer some advice and who I can learn from. I also had the opportunity to work in three different countries where I got to learn more about the different cultures. This channeled me to focus on employees and their development.

You took over the reins at BMW Group Asia in November 2014. What is one key change you have made since your appointment?

It always happens in big organisations that employees work in silence. To increase communication in the office, we have collaboration areas within the departments where staff can get together. We also have open meeting areas, instead of closed rooms, to encourage open conversation. We also have added screens in these areas where we can connect our computers for easy knowledge sharing.

You have gained extensive international experience, having worked in the automotive industry in many markets. How has that honed your leadership skills?

During my first posting in the UK, I received intercultural training from the company. This helped me to better understand the different cultures which is especially useful in my current role in Asia. I am in charge of 13 markets and I have learnt the importance of adapting may management style to the culture of the market. I believe that you also have to have your own personal leading style and that you have to have a certain set of principles to abide by. Only then can you adjust according to each culture, bearing in mind that you have to be more careful in some areas.

How do you interact with your staff?

I am a big fan of having no hierarchies, so my door is always open for anyone. I encourage everyone in the office to have a casual lunch or coffee with me to discuss strategies in further detail. I visit the headquarters often so I may have more information to share with my employees. I would like to break the tradition where a CEO is the only one who knows everything and instructs employees on what to do. I try to make use of the knowledge of each and everyone in the company.

As one of the leading brands in the automotive industry, what are some HR challenges the BMW Group Asia faces?

The biggest challenge is to find talent and retain the talent we have within the company. I think BMW’s brand is helpful in getting talent attracted to the organisation. In addition, we develop our employees and invest a lot in training in terms of both management and technology. These people then become more attractive to other employers. Personally, I am attracted to the company because it always offers something new. It definitely helps that I have a passion for the product, which is also evident among many of the employees.

I would also like to have more staff from BMW Group Asia in our headquarters. We are a German-driven company so we find that there are a lot of German expatriates around the world. It would create a stronger impact if we are able get the knowledge and the cultures of other parts of the world in the BMW headquarters.

Does the BMW brand help in attracting talent to the company?

The BMW brand has been around for the past 100 years and according to Forbes, BMW was voted the top premium car brand in the world with an estimated brand value of US$27.5 billion. While this notable achievement would attract talent in Europe and even the US, we realise this is maybe less the case in Asia.

In Europe, or Germany in particular, BMW is the preferred employer across all industries. Once you’ve got the job, you tend to stay on. In Asia, this is slightly different as there are many brands to choose from. This is even more so in a country like Singapore, which plays a strategic role as Asia headquarters for many multinational companies and global brands.

How closely do you work with the HR team? What are its strengths and how do you harness them?

The HR function is vital to the success of the BMW Group. It is important enough that we have a board member in headquarters dedicated to HR.

At BMW Group Asia, HR falls under the responsibility of our Director of Finance, who has 15 years of experience in BMW across the region. Given his deep understanding of our culture and the variety of nationalities we work with, he’s well-suited to manage Hwee Min Tan, our HR and Administration Manager. She proactively drives HR initiatives in the company.

How does the BMW Group Asia strive to stay ahead of its competitors?

Apart from constantly innovating our products and technologies to cater to the needs of our customers, we also invest a lot in training our staff to ensure they are equipped with world-class skills to handle their jobs.

Our HR department is also constantly on the lookout to groom our staff to ensure they grow with the company. In fact, BMW Group Asia just celebrated its 30th anniversary last year, and I’m proud to say that some staff have been around for that long! One such staff member is Mary Chan who first joined BMW Group Asia in 1985 and has only recently retired to become a full-time grandmother.

Such stories are not unheard of at BMW Group, and I attribute these long-lasting relationships to the vast opportunities that we offer to our staff, both in terms of vertical growth within their departments and opportunities to move across departments and functions.

How do you reward and recognise employees?

On the product front, we have programmes in place where employees can drive our cars, and participate in driving events with professional drive trainers.

Appreciation is one of the most important management tools that I try to use often. It does not necessarily have to be about money all the time. When an employee has done a fantastic job within the last quarter or month, we make sure that their efforts are noticed. One example of our practice is to present them a framed postcard which is signed by the management team. I find that sometimes, small gestures like these mean more to an employee.

Pay raises are effective but they are given once a year and then forgotten.

What aspect of the organisation are you most proud of?

I am proud that we are very international. The office is not the biggest around the world but we host 16 different nationalities. We also have six different nationalities within our eight member management team. They bring a wealth of experience and a variety of culture to the table.

What is one unique fact at BMW Group Asia that not many know about?

We have an equal ratio of female and male employees in the office. This may be quite unusual for a car company where you would probably expect more men. In fact, many of our departments here are dominated by women.

What was the most difficult decision you had to make as a leader at BMW Group Asia?

The most difficult decision was to let go of redundant staff because of business reasons. This is why I’ve always believed in grooming our staff and keeping their skills relevant and constantly updated, which reduces the chances of this happening.

Bio Brief

After working with the BMW Group since 2002, Axel Pannes was appointed the Managing Director of BMW Group Asia in November 2014.

Prior to his appointment, Pannes held various positions in the BMW Group’s headquarters in Munich, Germany.

He has also worked in the head office of Rolls-Royce Motor Cars in Goodwood, UK.

His experience includes work in sales and marketing, business development, sales channel strategy, as well as retail development.

Pannes’ last position was as the Vice President of Retail Development for the BMW Group.


Finding his footing

The confidence and passion that Axel Pannes, Managing Director of BMW Group Asia, possesses for the automotive industry is similar to most car enthusiasts.

At the snap of a finger, Pannes can easily recognise the various BMW models, their specifications and of course, their prices.

However, his bold step into the automotive industry was initially challenged by another interest he had for the air travel industry.

During the course of his studies, Pannes was involved in several projects for German airline, Lufthansa.

He recalled that he would hang the planes he received from Lufthansa from his room’s ceiling while BMW car posters were pasted on the walls.

In the end, his lasting interest for BMW won out, and paved the way for his career.

“I am a passionate driver and I have never lost that passion for the product,” Pannes said.

“It’s always important to have a real product that you can show someone else and be proud of.”

“Therefore, BMW is a perfect fit to that passion.”


Me  Myself  I

I love: My two-year-old son. He is at a very cute age at the moment

I dislike: Bad driving

My inspiration is: Talent. I like to develop people, coach them and watch them grow

My biggest weakness is: Being over-competitive

In five years’ time, I’d like to: Be an inspirational leader for the upcoming generation

Favorite quote: “Second place is first loser”


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