Five things we can learn from Johanna Quandt

Johanna Quandt

Johanna Quandt

Johanna Quandt, the heiress to one of the world’s greatest industrial groups, BMW, died last week at the age of 89. Here’s five of her family business attributes that remain as pertinent today as they did during her long life.

Outsiders can achieve greatness in a family business

Johanna, the daughter of an art historian Wolfgang Bruhn, wasn’t a Quandt by birth. She became Herbert Quandt’s secetuary and ended up marrying him. Herbert was the heir to the Quandt family’s huge business empire, which included stakes in Daimler-Benz and BMW. Following the death of her husband in 1982, Johanna became a supervisory board member at BMW, remaining there until 1997, and even served 10 years as deputy chair.

Understatement can often achieve the best outcomes

Johanna was known for her understated approach in managing the family’s extraordinary legacy in Germany - and at BMW. There is a story told about her that she was once asked by a stranger if she was Johanna Quandt, she replied: “Alas. That would be nice…” Her understated approach carried through to her position at BMW, which helped the iconic car maker to successfully negotiate the peaks and troughs of the automobile industry, and concentrate on the importance of long-term decision making and planning.

Outside experience is invaluable no matter what it is

Johanna’s experience as a young adult proves that no matter what one does in one’s early life it can be invaluable at a later point of one’s life. For Johanna, that experience was working as a nurse in a military hospital in Germany just before the end of the second world war. Her children reckon that time stayed with Johanna for the rest of her life and hugely influenced her approach to life.

Stability is more important that quick results

Johanna was an exponent of stable, long-term decision making. Harald Kruger, the newly appointed chief executive of BMW, said after her death was announced that she provided BMW with stability during her time at the car maker. This stability helped BMW to develop the cars it’s become so famous for today and continues to do so with the development of carbon-fibre electric cars like the i3 and i8, despite the fact that they aren’t immediately profitable. Other car companies, with management more influenced by the short-term vagaries of their company's stock price have probably been less innovative - and less successful.

Family control is crucial to success

Herbert Quandt realised the importance of keeping BMW under family control and that sentiment was passed over to his wife. Johanna managed to ensure the family didn’t dilute their shareholdings when times were tough for BMW like when, for example, it bought the UK automaker Rover in 1994 and was saddled with huge losses. Johanna also made sure that her shareholding will be passed on to her two children - Susanne and Stefan - ensuring that the family’s loyalty towards BMW should remain intact for another generation, especially if her children have at least some of her attributes.