Leadership Special Report: Leadership with a personal touch

One of the automotive industry’s leadership veterans, Axel Pannes, managing director at BMW Group Asia, talks to Miklos Bolza about his approach to staff development

Leadership Special Report: Leadership with a personal touch
rong>HRD: Tell us a little about your background – what led you to your current role?

Axel Pannes: I studied business administration at Mannheim University and Haas Business School in Berkeley. I graduated, worked for three years as an automotive consultant, and was asked to join BMW Group, where I was an in-house consultant focusing on brand management for another three years. At the time, BMW sold the Rover Group and was left with three brands: Mini, BMW and Rolls Royce. The question was whether we should integrate or separate these brands. Once that project was completed, I ended up with Rolls Royce and worked in the UK for two years on brand and product strategies and two more years on the bespoke business. We created some very interesting cars and had some very influential customers from around the world. I then returned to Munich and performed roles in retail development, customer relationship management and CKD production for seven years. Finally, I was asked to move to Singapore as managing director of BMW Group Asia. I’m now in charge of 13 markets, including Sri Lanka, most ASEAN countries, except Thailand and Malaysia, and a few island nations, like Guam, New Caledonia, Tahiti and French Polynesia.

HRD: What does your current role entail? What are your responsibilities?

AP: The major role of the Singapore office is overseeing sales and marketing for our 13 markets. We also have a number of corporate functions in charge of the whole Asian region. For example, we have a treasury centre which collects money from our NSCs and retail partners and provides financial support at the wholesale and retail level. We also have a huge IT team responsible for wholesale and retail systems, from China to Australia. I’m involved in all these functions because I’m the head of the Singapore office.

Regarding HR, I oversee around 180 people in Singapore. For me, there is always a focus on HR and the development of young people. As a company, BMW offers a lot of opportunities. It’s quite usual for employees to seek new challenges within the company every three or four years. Because of our international presence, staff can discover different roles in their own cities or move around the world.

I also like to be involved in personal coaching – advising employees about the right development plans. I’ll give you an example. I did a lunch with one employee yesterday for two and a half hours. She wondered whether she should move to a different role abroad and what that would mean for her personally. In the end, it’s always the employee’s decision, but I can add my advice about what to think about before making a major decision.

HRD: How do you manage your team at BMW Group Asia? What techniques do you use?

AP: The HR team is under my CFO, Clarence Chua, who has performed that role in other markets before. Technically the HR department doesn’t report directly to me, but we have regular meetings with the teams as I like to be involved in these matters. Hwee Min Tan, our HR manager, comes into the office at least once a week to discuss all HR topics for a few hours.

The focus in Singapore is regional sales. I have directors of sales, marketing, retail development and customer relationships, the Mini business, and the motorcycle and aftersales business. These directors take care of all HR topics within their teams, with support from our HR team. We also have regular standardised approaches for employee evaluation. This is done yearly and is quite an intense two-month process. Six months later, I hold a development discussion with my employees. I ask them where they want to be in three to five years and what’s required personally and technically to get them there.

HRD: What do you expect from your HR team at BMW? Are there any specific qualities the head of HR should have?

AP: I’m lucky as our HR manager is very experienced in all the necessary standard instruments and legislation. This is the basics. More importantly, an HR manager should have direct contact with all employees to gain honest feedback on what’s going on. This includes personal topics because these will always affect performance. If staff are open, you can react to these situations. That’s always good. I encourage HR to talk as much as possible to all employees. Finally, it is also important to have a succession plan. As I said, staff in BMW are encouraged to find new roles frequently. With a succession plan, you can make quick decisions when someone leaves and avoid huge gaps in the organisation.

HRD: What’s the biggest people challenge at BMW Group Asia?

AP: As BMW is a very attractive brand, it brings in a lot of talent. This makes our staff very attractive for other employers as well, so we always face other companies targeting our employees. They’re well trained, working for a well-known brand, and our global image is very good. It’s difficult to keep every employee. Competitors mainly target technicians and not office staff, however, because we are a leading company in technology and the automotive industry. If we train our people on electric cars or carbon fibre structures, they become very attractive to others. And you can’t always battle over salary because some employees get a huge salary increase when approached by other companies. You can’t match that because then the costs will run through the roof.


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