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Hans Blesse: ‘I was teaching people twice my age how to fix cars’

jennifer roberts The Globe and Mail

Hans Blesse, German-born and Montreal-raised, is president of BMW Group Canada, a company that sold about 42,000 vehicles in Canada last year. An employee for 29 years, Mr. Blesse served as after-sales manager starting in 1987 for 18 years, took the same position in Spain in 2005, moved into marketing at the Munich head office in 2008, then in 2012 became vice-president of the Motorrad division in the United States. He returned to Canada as president in June, 2014.

My involvement in BMW Canada was actually preordained. When my parents came to Canada from northern Germany in 1964, I was four years old. My father was a millwright by trade and didn't speak a word of French but he picked up the family and we moved to the German section of Montreal. My father was very mechanical, always fixing things. On Sundays, we used to walk down Saint Catherine Street. The BMW dealership was just a little way down from the Forum, so even as a six-year-old, we had to go over and look at the cars.

I worked for my dad during the summer. With my first paycheque, I bought my mom a present, then saved for Montreal Canadiens' season tickets.

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I went to Europe, got my mechanical engineering [certification], came back to Canada, talked to the service manager at the Montreal dealership, and he offered me so much money on the spot. It paid the bills, but I was 25 and thought, 'There's got to be more to life than this.' I was teaching people twice my age how to fix cars.

I got on my [motor]bike and went to visit every major dealer in Canada and asked, 'Who's the best?' Vancouver Auto was the best so I put all my earthly belongings into an Econoline and moved. The toughest job interview I ever had was at Vancouver Auto, for a technician's role. The more I showed them I knew what to do, the harder the test got. I had the great luck of having classical training on the engineering side, so I was well-grounded.

I did that for six years, then BMW Canada was founded and I became a regional manager. The entire BMW team could fit in the cafeteria back then. We're all in the cafeteria and Victor Doolan came in and said, 'Hi, I am your new president and we are going to sell 10,000 cars.' We were selling just over 4,000 cars. We did it and the next one came in and said, 'We're going to sell 20,000 cars.'

In 1986, we had more dealerships than we do today – small stores all over Canada, selling BMWs as a sideline between snowmobiles. The first phase was to consolidate the dealerships; we had to shut down the dealers that sold three or four cars a year, as a sideline to their snowmobile business. I remember having to go to Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump – even today, I am amazed how many people know where that is [west of Calgary] – where a dealer was selling three or four cars a year. The first part wasn't so pleasant, because you had to go into people who were fans of the brand and say, 'I know you're related to a second cousin of a sister-in-law – or something like that – but I am here to tell you we're shutting it down.' It became a real business after that.

One of my greatest early drives was to bring the 7 Series to a dealer on the edge of the Alaska Highway, just on the Canadian side of the Yukon. I think he sold three cars a year. But the drive was great because we got to see the aurora borealis in a way we'd never seen it before. Just driving way up there, in one of the greatest cars on the planet.

BMW Group has never gone backwards in Canada since it was founded. People know what the brand stands for and they associate with that. Apple, Google, Disney or us … when you pull out your business card someone says, 'You work at BMW, the car company?' Yes. 'Oh, do I have a story for you …'

As the world evolves rapidly, there are fewer examples of mature industries and companies with long, successful histories. In 2016, BMW Group celebrates its 100th anniversary and business has never been more competitive. In order to maintain a leadership position, innovation must be constant. Our success has not been accidental. BMW has deliberately prioritized and invested in research, development and innovation. This commitment to taking risk and being first to market with new technology has resulted in 25 consecutive years of sales growth in Canada – a remarkable achievement for any company. Waiting to adopt someone else's innovation is not a sustainable leadership strategy.

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[Introvert or an extrovert?] That's a tough question akin to, do you like coffee or tea? Many drink both. I drink espresso in the morning and green tea in the evening. Running a company requires the strong communications skills of an extrovert. Leading people on a daily basis demands the extrovert's capability of generating energy from working with groups. Therefore, in my private life, I'm more introverted, seeking out moments to recharge with family and close friends. In my position, it's simply not possible to be exclusively introverted, or extroverted.

How do you disconnect from work? I am very privileged to work for a company producing some of the best cars on the market. I'm even more fortunate

BMW also builds the most advanced motorcycles. I'm currently riding one of my favourites – the BMW R1200RT. It's the perfect bike for riding north into the cool Ontario fall weekends. Riding is good for the mind. There simply isn't room for business problems inside my helmet.

Autonomous vehicles will have their place. More people are living in major cities around the world and densities keep going up, so what's fun about being stuck in traffic for 45 minutes every morning? If you give me the option of using those 45 minutes productively, I would probably do it. To drive to the cottage in one of those things, though, forget it – not in the cards. It's a great road, usually empty when I go, and a whole lot of fun to drive on.

There's a whole lot of work to do still [on autonomous technology]. But people forget, when the internal-combustion engine came out, you had to go buy gasoline at the pharmacy. This technology is in its infancy. It's 10 years old.

The other issue that all governments are facing around the world is, what is their vision for urban mobility? Take Toronto as it grows and grows – can the infrastructure keep pace with the mobility needs? If not, then there is a role for the self-driving car to fulfull those mobility needs.

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Maybe the future is very different. Maybe it isn't about big-box stores. Maybe it's about living together and living in neighborhoods and being close to the things you need. I lived just outside of Munich in a little town, parked my car on Friday nights and didn't use it again, because everything was within walking distance. The infrastructure was so good, you could just hop on a bus, but you didn't really need the bus because everything was within walking or bicycling distance. Whereas we came to Canada, lived in Brossard, and the nearest shopping mall was miles away. The distances work against us in Canada.

As told to Tom Maloney

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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