Lars Nielsen, Managing Director, BMW Group Asia effortlessly handles a wide variety of topics from Danish butter cookies to the challenges of a disruptive car market
It is not often that Singaporeans get to meet a Dane. Yet, our local culture is filled with products from Denmark that have touched our lives in one way or another. Lego, Carlsberg beer, Maersk shipping containers, and Kjeldsens Butter Cookies with their iconic blue tins are part of many Singaporeans’ collective memories.
So naturally, when we were invited to lunch with Lars Nielsen, Managing Director, BMW Group Asia, this writer jumped at the chance to ask all these burning questions…
It was more likely, however, that Mr Nielsen was probably expecting more car industry-related questions since this is Burnpavement after all.
Like a premium Bang & Olufsen high-fidelity system, Lars is well put-together. Tall, lean and smartly dressed in a blazer, he exudes a cool, yet accessible demeanour with his friendly smile.
We meet at Tamarind Hill, a Thai restaurant near Labrador Park. Lars needs no introduction to the menu thanks to his years as Director of Sales and Marketing for BMW Group Thailand from 2015 to 2019.
“In all honesty, one of the things I enjoy most while living in Singapore is to have some spicy Thai food with a cold beer at Newton Hawker Centre,” said the 43-year old who lives not far from the iconic establishment. “I’m looking forward to Chilli Crab next,” when asked if he has acclimatized to the local fare. Occasionally, however, he does crave for some Rugbrød, a Danish rye sourdough bread that reminds him of home.
In between Thailand and his current Singapore posting, Lars was Director of Sales and Marketing at BMW Group Middle East in Dubai. “I consider it a privilege to work for BMW and have the opportunity to live in all these countries,” he replies when asked about life as an expat.
When asked if Singapore is the most challenging market of his postings thus far, Lars is diplomatic, “Every market has its challenges.”
Where Singapore is concerned, the relative size of the market, dictated by the supply of the COE is a concept that he has to relate to superiors in Munich. “It’s actually harder to explain to (BMW) HQ why it’s not easy to grow by 15-20 percent like some other markets.”
It may not have been ‘easy’ but BMW Group Asia still managed to achieve this under the leadership of his predecessor, Christopher Wehner. In the first half of 2021, BMW retail sales increased by 21 percent compared to the same period in 2019. MINI Asia, which also comes under BMW Group Asia, also increased its sales in the same period by more than 12 percent.
As Mr Wehner has been called back to Munich, Germany to take on the position of Vice President for Product and Launch Management, MINI, it goes without saying that Mr Neilsen has some big shoes to fill.
Singapore, is just one of the 14 markets that Lars is responsible for. The others being, Indonesia, Vietnam, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Brunei, Bangladesh, Nepal, Guam, New Caledonia, Tahiti, Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar.
With widely diverse economic and political landscapes to navigate, a one-size-fits-all strategy simply will not do. Fortunately, Lars seems to be extremely adaptable to discussing a wide variety of topics over lunch:
Are Kjeldsens Butter Cookies really from Denmark?
“Yes,” is the short answer, but Lars adds that it has become something of a cliché in his homeland. “We call it ‘great-grandmother cookies’ because only those in their 70s and 80s seem to buy them,” says Lars. “I do know however, that these cookies are much more of a thing in Asia and the Middle East as they seem to be more popular in this part of the world.”
How do you pronounce Maersk?
Coming back to cars, Lars acknowledges that the shift towards Electric Vehicles (EVs) as well as the pandemic has brought about significant disruptions to the automotive industry.
“This period is definitely challenging,” says Lars, “but BMW also in a good position to take advantage of the shift towards EVs.” He cites his company’s “Power of Choice” approach where some core models such as the BMW X3 are available in a variety of powertrain configurations; Internal Combustion Engine (ICE), Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle (PHEV) or a full Battery Electric Vehicle (BEV).
He believes that this puts BMW in a unique advantage where it will be able to serve the widest variety of markets such as those in the fold of BMW Group Asia.
“Not every market is ready for EV adoption like Singapore,” says Lars. “In this region, we have everything from modern mega-cities to emerging markets with less-developed infrastructure.”
“The need for different technologies to fit into a given environment or scenario across the world, is I think, the most rational and probably the fastest way to make an impact on the environment, globally,” said Lars.
With the combination of products that offer customers the Power of Choice, along with a Managing Director who can comfortably adapt to a fast-moving conversation, it looks like BMW Group Asia is in very good hands indeed.