Alexander Baraka, President of BMW Group Thailand, talks sustainability, strategies, the future of the automotive landscape, and identifying Thailand as a key regional player.
It’s been a few months short of a year since Alexander Baraka stepped into his role as the President of BMW Group Thailand. His tenure with the car manufacturer, however, dates back much further. The German-national began his journey as a young student, test driving BMW cars in what he deems was “the best student job” he’s ever had. After several internships that followed, in Germany and in Canada, Alexander gradually made his way up the ranks, with various supervisory and management roles and job postings that have led him through Spain, South Africa, and now Thailand.
In his new position, Alexander oversees all of BMW Group Thailand’s business divisions, including BMW, MINI, and BMW Motorrad. In the months following his most recent appointment, he’s been determined to keep the brand on an upward trajectory of sustainable growth, with a strong focus on customer-centricity – an attribute synonymous with the BMW Group. When asked what drives his passion and long-standing commitment to the brand, he cites the numerous opportunities, personal development, and mentorship he has had in his almost two decade-long career, aptly quipping: “I am a BMW boy!”
In the days prior to the lockdown, I caught up with this energetic leader who, despite the economic slowdown and pandemic-related challenges in the global auto industry, is optimistic about the brand’s business plans and expansion in the region, as well as the future of mobility.
This is your first post here in Asia. How has your experience been so far and what is your impression of Thai consumers?
I’m very humbled and inspired by the friendliness, openness, and hospitality I was given, and not just to me but my family as well, and that is truly unique. Besides that, I’m amazed at the deep knowledge of Thai consumers in their products of interest. They are very well aware as to what they want, when they want it, and what product and service suits their lifestyle most. At the beginning, I thought we’d have to [invest in] marketing in trying to educate the consumers, but the consumers find the places and the channels on how to educate themselves, and that is very impressive. It also makes the engagement with consumers a little bit easier. Last but not least, what I really appreciate, coming from the automotive industry, is that they are very receptive to innovation and new tech gadgets. This makes it easier for us, too.
What is your long-term objective here in Thailand?
Sustainable growth is of utmost importance to me. I would also say that a huge success factor for our sustainable growth is “customer- centricity”, which is very important for our own transformation. It’s something we preach every single day in management meetings, be it with our employees or with our dealers.
Having worked primarily in the Western Hemisphere, what potential do you see for the brand in Thailand, especially in the premium automobile segment?
Even though Spain and Germany are in the same European marketplace they couldn’t be more different [from each other]. South Africa, too, is a completely different category on its own, again with its own challenges and opportunities. But if we look at it factually, according to the global competitive index ranking for 2019, Thailand is ranked 40th amongst 141 countries, and that is actually quite good in terms of human capital markets, as well as the innovative eco system. Our growth rates over the last years are obviously driven by local demand. Our manufacturing plant in Rayong, which has been in operation for the last 20 years, is one of the most flexible CKD plants in the world, and currently produces 15 different types of vehicles. It’s also the only BMW plant which produces four- and two-wheeled vehicles. So, the investment and the commitment to choose Thailand as a marketplace for ASEAN countries is there, and there is more future investment coming.
What are the impacts and implications of Covid-19 in the auto industry?
In the first quarter of 2020, the effects of the pandemic were clearly visible in sales figures in Europe and the US. Around 80 percent of all retail outlets in Europe, and 70 percent of those in the US, are currently closed due to Covid-19. In a number of countries, stationary retailers are legally prohibited from selling cars at the present time. In addition, production shortfalls resulting from supply chain disruptions will impact global automakers. In my view, it is important to see Covid-19 as a global wave, which has to be simultaneously assessed from a global production and sales footprint. Companies with a strategic production site and sales footprint in Asia, particularly in China, already see a direct impact and will now start a recovery phase.
What measures is BMW taking to manage the way your clientele experiences your brand, especially in the midst of the current crisis?
In light of the current situation, and for the utmost safety of our customers, we have also worked closely with our nationwide network of authorised dealers to step up preventive measures. Prospective customers seeking a test drive can rest assured as we have meticulous sanitising practices for each and every car. All test vehicles are thoroughly cleaned after every drive, with special attention paid to key contact surfaces. Furthermore, customers can take advantage of our premium service offerings, including at- home test drives, vehicle cleaning services, online vehicle service appointments, and more. The BMW Group is managing the crisis with caution, focusing on processes and looking ahead to the future. While the crisis is ongoing, we will lay the foundations for the most powerful relaunch possible once it’s over.
Can you delve a bit more into BMW’s vision on the future of mobility, specifically in regard to Thailand?
On the worldwide level, BMW Group is an electromobility pioneer, with a proven track record since we introduced the i3 nearly seven years ago. At the end of 2019, we had already delivered half a million electrified vehicles to customers worldwide, and we have the broadest range of electrified vehicles, with plug-in hybrids in every segment. The BMW Group plans to expand its range of electrified vehicles to 25 models by 2023 – more than half of them fully electric. A quarter of the BMW Group vehicles sold in Europe are expected to be electrified by 2021, a third by 2025, and half by 2030. Locally, in Thailand, we are focusing on new technologies. We launched BMW ConnectedDrive in 2018, and BMW Intelligent Personal Assistant in 2019, which responds to the prompt “Hey BMW”, or “Sawaddee BMW”, or any other personalised greeting that you prefer. Most recently, in March 2020, we introduced the BMW Digital Key in the new BMW X6, allowing drivers to turn their smartphone into a car key, as well as many new state-of-the-art features.
What can you tell us about BMW’s corporate social responsibility initiatives in Thailand?
Our company has done so much to bring whatever we can to communities in need. Our signature CSR project, called the ‘Care4Water’, brings small water filtration systems to [remote] villages and they can use that to filter the water they consume. We’ve been doing this since 2013, and up until now we’ve donated nearly 6,000 filters to over 70 communities in Thailand. It’s also encouraging to see employees among all three entities of BMW use their free time to take action within their CSR projects. They do this of their own free will, because they really like to make a difference. We’ve also invited our customers to join us on trips to remote areas in the north, and they really loved it. I think it’s because Thais are primarily Buddhists, so the art of giving is ingrained in them. This is so unique to Thailand. I don’t think I’ve seen this anywhere else.
What are your next steps for the brand, going forward?
My vision for the brand here is that we intend to launch more products. You’ve gotten a glimpse of it in the last few months, where we’ve increased our portfolio in the luxury segment with the new BMW 7 Series and 8 Series, as well as the 330e and 2-Series Gran Coupe. We also launched our MINI electric, which has been a huge success story. It was quite the record breaker actually, where within 35 seconds we sold all the 25 units online. It shows that there is a market for the car, and MINI Thailand is the fastest growing market compared to others in the world. With the launch of the S1000RR, people can expect more from BMW Motorrad. Our product portfolio this year has never been this competitive.
And finally, what is your definition of luxury?
Innovative technology and modern luxury have always been an important part of BMW’s brand DNA. We use visionary concept vehicles to show where we are going with these themes in the future, and to give us new inspiration and motivation as well as the freedom to choose how we prefer to travel – with or without our own hands on the steering wheels. Freedom perceived as luxury involves being the owner of our own time, breaking free from all constraints. To me personally, the moment that I’m driving quietly on an isolated highway in the new BMW 7 Series, listening to the sound of my surroundings whispering in my ears, that’s the definition of luxury… the time of our own freedom.