Brain Food: Helmut Panke - If i had to start again ...

I actually started out in nuclear physics. I attended a prep school in the US, following dreams created by watching James Dean movies, of hanging out and dating. I was thinking of pursuing a business degree, but my physics teacher there really sold me on the beauty of science. When I finished my physics major and PhD, I was still tempted by the business side, as I couldn't see myself spending my life in a white lab-coat; at this point I discovered my guiding theme - keeping one foot on well-known ground, with the other experimenting.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

I moved to Switzerland to take part in an international research project. The subject was familiar, but my project management role was new. That led to a post at McKinsey. My father asked me why I didn't get a real job. I told him that, again, it combined something I could do well with plenty I could learn.

In 1981, I became BMW's head of planning in R&D, and soon got the job of corporate planning in the US. This was the fulfilment of a life's dream, a physicist moving into industry. My family couldn't believe I had gone into the automotive sector. They said the industry was disappearing, and that BMW was the least likely to survive. But it felt right: I just loved the cars.

I could never have planned my career. I've worked in every area at BMW, from HR to IT, from manufacturing to sales; I've been CFO, which was fun, and CEO. I've just always added uncharted territory to what I'd done before, and followed my instincts.

That's the message - don't plan. If it feels good, do it. Once I was offered the job at BMW, nothing could tempt me to leave. I need to work somewhere where I can identify with the product, where people are pushing the envelope - a job that offers more than just 'OK, your office is running smoothly'. There have been great offers, of moving up in other companies, but the BMW virus really affected me.

Dr Helmut Panke stepped down as chief executive of BMW on August 31.


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