BMW shores up leadership as U.S. sales sag

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Kuhnt: New role starts March 1.

After two years heading BMW’s importer markets, Bernhard Kuhnt goes from overseeing business in more than 80 countries to just one — the United States, a key market where sales in the past year have lagged rivals Mercedes-Benz and Lexus.

BMW last week named Kuhnt, 49, to become CEO of BMW of North America effective March 1. He replaces Ludwig Willisch, 60, who continues as head of BMW Group Region Americas, a position he had held since 2012 alongside his U.S. role. Kuhnt and the operating heads of all BMW sales subsidiaries in North, Central and South America report to Willisch.

The move could be a precursor to Willisch’s retirement. BMW’s top executives typically retire between the ages of 60 and 62. Willisch took over the U.S. market in 2011 and indicated to some upon his arrival that the U.S. role would be his final assignment before retirement.

Sales rose steadily during his tenure until hitting a roadblock in 2016.

Willisch: Took over U.S. in ’11.

BMW’s U.S. brand sales dropped 9.5 percent to 313,174 vehicles in 2016 — well behind Mercedes-Benz’s 340,237 luxury-vehicle deliveries and Lexus’ 331,228 deliveries. While BMW sales were up 0.1 percent to 18,109 vehicles in January — good for second place among luxury brands — they were still far behind Mercedes-Benz’s 25,527 deliveries.

Interview requests with both Willisch and Kuhnt were declined. In a statement, Willisch welcomed Kuhnt to the U.S. role.

"Bernhard brings many years of experience in the global automotive industry to his new role here in the United States," Willisch said.

In addition to the change at CEO, BMW also announced that Petter Witt, who has been executive vice president of operations for BMW of North America, will leave his position at the end of February.

Witt will join Holman Automotive, a privately owned dealership group based in Mount Laurel, N.J., as platform vice president, Northeast. A Holman statement said Witt will be responsible for Holman’s 10 stores in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

In his new position as CEO, Kuhnt will appoint a successor to Witt.

Kuhnt, a native of Germany, already is familiar with the U.S. market. From 1983 to 2003, he worked for Mercedes-Benz including a stint as vice president of sales for Mercedes-Benz USA overseeing divisions in Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles. From 2003 to 2009, he headed Mercedes-Benz dealerships in Anaheim, Calif., and Chandler, Ariz. He joined Jaguar Land Rover in 2009 and was hired by BMW Group at the beginning of 2015.

Coming off the 2016 sales decline, the move should enable Willisch to delegate some of the direct responsibility for the U.S. market to Kuhnt, said Stephanie Brinley, analyst with IHS Markit.

"Bringing in Kuhnt as part of Willisch’s management team means that Willisch gets the advantage of having a fresh set of eyes, as it were, to help find areas for improvement or new approaches that might improve sales," Brinley told Automotive News.

The change isn’t surprising, said Rebecca Lindland, senior analyst for Kelley Blue Book.

"This is a very typical move for BMW executives after serving for five-plus years," Lindland said.