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French Version

BMW's Seemann delivers the goods in Mideast

Managing director now eyeing top spot in the luxury car market

For a man who could hit the roads in a new type of BMW every day, Guenther Seemann's hobbies might sound a bit surprising. "I like walking and bicycling," he tells The Daily Star at a massive fete thrown for the launching of the new BMW 7 Series, M5 and M6, at Abu Dhabi's $2 billion Emirates Palace Hotel. "My family is my biggest hobby. I don't see them for half the year."

Seemann, BMW's managing director for the Middle East for the past three years, can barely be heard above the din of robed sheikhs climbing in and out of the sparkling new 7 Series models wheeled into the Palace's ballroom.

Quiet and unassuming, Seemann prefers listening to speaking, a useful trait for a man whose job it is to market a luxury product to demanding princes who occasionally turn their noses at $150,000 cars. He's also had to become a student of the byzantine regulations that govern imports and exports throughout the Arab world, where BMW relies on local agents to sell its cars.

"I get out of the shower each day and I don't know what to expect," he says. He learned two weeks ago, for example, that Syria had suddenly changed a law governing auto imports, driving the price of a new BMW down 50 percent.

"The Syrian market will expand," he commented. "That was a positive development, but sometimes there are negative changes."

Seemann answers questions about himself in short, clipped sentences, preferring to talk about "the BMW team" rather than his own accomplishments.

But Seemann, who established BMW's Middle East group a decade ago, has led the Munich company's turnaround in the region, from selling 2,800 cars in 1994 to 10,500 in 2004. BMW has now set its sights on challenging DaimlerChrysler's number-one spot in the Middle East luxury market.

BMW deemed him so successful at gaining a quick sense for what is needed in emerging markets that it sent him to Singapore and China between 1998 and 2004 to run the company's operations throughout Asia.

He's been in Dubai for a little over a year orchestrating BMW's strategy for the Middle East, which is now the company's fourth-most important market behind the U.S., Europe, and China.

"I enjoy life in Dubai. My daughter is enjoying school. We feel welcome here," Seemann says.

Being constantly on the road assessing Middle East markets gives Seemann an interesting vantage point in a troubled region. He's had his eye on the Iraq market, and says "when commercial airlines regularly begin flying to Baghdad, then its time for us to enter the market."

"The Iraqi people need to find peace of mind first," he says, "then they will start thinking about luxury cars."

Seemann says he was "very much concerned for Lebanon" during the peaceful uprising against the Syrian military presence. BMW sold 150 cars in Lebanon during the first quarter of 2005, a drop of only 50 units from the same period last year.

"When people are buying premium cars in Lebanon it's a good sign," he says.

BMW will likely want to keep Seemann in place for at least the next few years, as it sees rapid growth and new markets for BMW in the region, mainly in Iran, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

BMW chairman of the board Helmut Panke predicted a doubling of growth for BMW in the next 10 years and sales of 13,000 vehicles in 2005.

"Our cars are tailor-made for the region," says Seemann, who explains that in the Middle East market's "inverted sales pyramid," top-of-the line luxury products like the 7 Series sell better than BMW's less expensive 3 Series.

"The Middle East is very much driven by new products that are coming out and we have a big chance to overtake the competition," Seemann said, referring to DaimlerChrysler.

As the use of leasing and financing agreements grows in the Middle East, they will boost sales for luxury cars, as buyers won't have to dip into their cash reserves to purchase a new 7-series.

The Middle East market, of course, is still small compared to the markets in the United States or China, and BMW says it still does not produce enough cars to merit opening a regional assembly plant in the Gulf or Levant. Currently, the company uses licensed importers in each country, who are monitored by Seemann, to distribute the cars. These importing agreements generally mean higher costs for consumers as the market is essentially monopolized.

"We can produce cars and market cars but we do not know the local environment. We don't have the networking and the contacts. The importers are our local heroes in town," Seemann says.

Seemann won't speculate whether his success in quadrupling BMW's sales in the Middle East will lead to a position in higher management in Munich. "It depends on BMW," he said.

For now, the Wurzburg native, who has spent nearly his entire adult life working for BMW, says he enjoys applying the lessons he learned at home to new parts of the world.

"It's important for me to give my knowledge to other regions," he says.

For Seemann, that means doing a lot of studying and a lot of listening.

20-second resume
Family: married with one daughter, Jasmine, 14
Currently reading: no time for books, all economic magazines
Last vacation: family trip to Cape Town, South Africa, last January
Currently driving: "BMW 750 today, BMW 745 yesterday"

Beirut,05 23 2005
Will Rasmussen
The Daily Star
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