BMW’s electric car initiative is at a crossroads. After mostly being shelved by outgoing CEO Harald Krüger during his years leading the company, BMW’s EV program has the potential to see a revival with the naming of its new chief executive. Fortunately, recent reports indicate that BMW is set to name the rather understated Oliver Zipse over Klaus Fröhlich as the carmaker’s new CEO.
BMW’s supervisory board is expected to discuss the company’s new leadership at the Spartanburg, South Carolina plant on Thursday. So far, reports indicate that the 55-year-old Zipse is the favored candidate over the 59-year old Fröhlich, who serves as BMW’s Head of Development. Fröhlich had attracted a number of headlines as of late, particularly when he insisted that there was no demand for electric vehicles.
Zipse joined BMW as a trainee back in 1991, rising through the company’s ranks and holding several posts. Prior to becoming a board member for production, Zipse worked as the carmaker’s Head of Brand and Product Strategies. Over his years with the company, Zipse has shown proficiency in manufacturing efficiencies. BMW’s efficient production network, which was expanded in Hungary, China, and the United States, emerged under Zipse’s lead, and it has helped the carmaker deliver healthy profit margins.
Auto analysts and industry experts believe that it will take more than manufacturing expertise to lead BMW into the EV era. In a statement to Reuters, Carsten Breitfeld, a former BMW engineer who currently serves as the chief executive of China-based ICONIQ motors, noted that Zipse’s apparent appointment “goes far beyond optimizing an existing business.” “He needs to be able to build teams, to attract key talent, and to promote a culture which is increasingly oriented along consumer electronics and internet dynamics,” the former BMW engineer said.
One key aspect that Zipse would have to work on is BMW’s electric car program, which has lagged against rivals like Mercedes-Benz and Audi, both of which have already released, or a least unveiled, their own premium all-electric vehicles. BMW actually had an early lead with the i3, but the vehicle was practically abandoned by the company when it failed to get traction.
Silicon Valley-based Tesla, a newcomer on the market, has so far established a substantial lead in the EV space, and its Model 3 sedan has started eating into the sales of popular gas-powered four-doors like the BMW 3-Series. UBS analyst Patrick Hummel addressed this, stating that “Tesla has a lead of three to four years in areas like software and electronics. The millennials are much more focused on these things. There is a risk that the Germans can’t catch up.”
BMW had already made a mistake in electric vehicles once. During the time of the i3, it was reported that CEO Harald Krüger’s reluctance to push low-margin EVs ultimately led to an exodus of talented engineers. Among these are Christian Senger, who is now a board member responsible for software for Volkswagen, and Markus Duesmann, who is reportedly in line to be Audi’s CEO in the future. If BMW does decide on Zipse, it could have another chance at breaking through the emerging EV market, albeit late.
Now, if BMW elects the electric car-dismissing Klaus Fröhlich as its next CEO instead, the German carmaker could be looking into even more turbulent years ahead.