In BMW’s Driver’s Seat
Sep 09, 2017 02:18PM ● Published by Makayla Gay
By John Jeter
Knudt Flor’s all about sunshine.
He grew up in a small town in so-far-north Germany that he still enjoys a particular brand of lozenge developed 150 years ago for North Sea fishermen staving off the nasty local weather. On a chilly winter afternoon, he proffers a small bag of Fisherman’s Friend to a visitor, explaining that though its eucalyptus-and-menthol flavor may be an acquired taste, the medicinal candy works wonders.
“The difference between summer and winter,” he says of his hometown just south of the Danish border, “is in the summer the rain is a little bit warmer.”
Niebüll, Germany, is a world and a lifetime away from where the 57-year-old engineer is today, a place whose entire population is not much larger than the workforce he began managing just before Christmas as the new CEO and president of BMW Manufacturing.
“It’s perfect—sunshine—it’s the best,” he says during a 26-minute exclusive interview with Greenville Business Magazine two weeks into his position.
Flor arrives in Spartanburg at a time when the largest plant in BMW, which has $23 billion in annual revenues and 30 production sites in 14 countries, just completed a massive $1 billion expansion. The factory can now produce 450,000 vehicles a year, up from 350,000. Nearly 401,000 cars rolled off the line in 2015, topping numbers produced anywhere in Bayerische Motoren Werke AG’s network.
Flor has been around for much of that. The 28-year BMW veteran spent all but two years of his career with the auto giant. From 2008 to 2010, he was technical director at BMW South Africa in Pretoria. Until 2013, he was senior vice president at BMW’s joint venture with Brilliance, a Chinese manufacturer in Shenyang; yang, wouldn’t you know, means “sunny,” “bright.”
The affable, white-maned executive, who was trained as a car mechanic in the late ’70s, actually returns to the Palmetto State’s balmy climes and warm corporate environment after 16 years. From 1996 to 2000, he was “Senior Manager, Supplier and Assembly Quality Management,” as his globe-trotting resume says. He takes over from Manfred Erlacher, who oversaw launches of BMW’s X4, X3 LCI; the second-generation X6, X5 M and X6 M; and the X5 xDrive40e, a hybrid plug-in.
With Flor in the driver’s seat now, other execs say they’re excited about the ride. “He is very energetic, full of fresh ideas, focused on quality and the associates’ wellbeing,” says Gerald Degen, VP Production Control, Logistics, while Rich Morris, VP Project Integration, says Flor “brings the experience, enthusiasm, and excitement Plant Spartanburg needs to tackle its future challenges.”
Those include “five basic launches in five years,” Flor says, including the highly anticipated X7.
He also talks, with more than a little enthusiasm, about self-driving cars: “This is not fiction anymore. If you went to Germany today, we could show you a self-driving car. The technology is in the development stage, it is not ready for the street, it’s not ready for serious production, but from a technology point of view, it’s within reach.”
How close? “You can expect around ’20, 2021, we will have those models ready, but there’s still a lot to do with the government regulations.”
Which is one of the things, alongside the weather, he appreciates about being back in town. “I stayed here for four years, and I always wanted to return because of the living in South Carolina, the people in South Carolina, and the business attitude,” he says. “What I could see in those years, from ’96 to 2000, it was extremely supportive. Whatever we wanted, whatever we needed for the business, we got for the business.”
He also sees a strong labor pool, one that needs continual nurturing. “Being in business for over 22 years,” he says, noting BMW’s North American launch in 1994, “we have developed a very strong workforce, and we definitely have to continue with education moving forward, engineering education, scholar programs, because, in the future, we will need more and more qualified people.”
BMW’s global workforce grew nearly four percentage points, to more than 126,000, in 2016. Flor’s associates’ number will increase 10 percent, up to 8,800, almost as many people as populate Niebüll, home to about 9,000.
“If you run a plant like this, you have to love the product, and you have to like people,” he says. “My biggest task is to get the right people into the right job. I have to have a feeling for the right people. Who’s the right person for each job? For example, for you, what are your strengths? I would not focus on your weaknesses. What is the right job for you? And if you like your job, you can be good at your job.”
His strengths? His sunny disposition shining through a humble smile, he says, “It’s a mixture of passion and experience.”