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McDowell leading BMW's Mini

BMW's Jim McDowell, Mini division vice-president.

BMW's Jim McDowell, Mini division vice-president. Photo Credit: Illustration by Adam Young, Wheelbase Media

He's proof that automobile big business doesn't have to be all business all the time. That fun is actually part of business and, in fact, having fun means a better business.

Whoa. Who is this mad man with these crazy ideas?

Try the guy who believes that a day hasn't been a good day if you "haven't laughed at the bottom of your lungs at least five times."

Or try the guy who believes a recent romance film about two people intensely in love is "an inspiration, unlike any movie I have ever seen."

Or how about the guy who enjoys reading books about the construction of New York's Penn Station subway, loves developing talented young workers, demands that people be polite or whose favorite restaurant is one in Wellfleet, Mass., on the

Cape Cod National Seashore where you can walk in from the beach and sit down to have an honest meal?

Meet Jim McDowell, vice president of Mini, BMW's little brand that just can't stop selling a lot of cars.

McDowell puts the "e" in eclectic and the "e" in electric.

And isn't it perfect that a guy such as McDowell is directing the future of the brand that epitomizes the word fun in the auto business? Never have two groups been so perfectly aligned.

During a time of brand consolidation, confusion over the next great answer for fuel efficiency and consternation over how a brand can keep an iconic status, McDowell is the lightning rod for a hot product.

Sales are sizzling, new products are on the way and McDowell is steering the ship.

Not bad for a a guy in his late 50s who has an advanced degree from Harvard University in Massachusetts, wears Hawaiian shirts to the office and cherishes his big break in a business he never dreamed he would be a part of when he joined Porsche in 1985.

"I had been working as a corporate planner but never alongside the CEO in such a fun industry," McDowell told trade newspaper Automotive News. "It hooked me on great German cars and also showed me how fun the industry could be."

Truth be told, McDowell was hooked on German cars as a kid when he would go to car dealerships with his father for fun. He remembers pointing out the craftsmanship of the German vehicles of the time. Things such as the finish on the inside of Volkswagen bumpers.

So it probably seemed natural when it came time to buy a car that McDowell could take to Colorado College in 1970 that it was a Volkswagen.

German cars wouldn't stray far from his mind.

There were a few diversions in between. He strayed from astronomy to geology to bass fishing and wind surfing after college, but eventually found his way back to the Germans in the mid-1980s, working with Porsche. Eight years and many interesting lessons later, McDowell jumped to BMW and never looked back.

For 12 years as the vice president of marketing, McDowell helped turn BMW into a must-have on North American shores as the self-proclaimed "ultimate driving machine."

He was named a "Marketer of the Year" in the United States. BMW sales rose and McDowell rose with it.

So it was no surprise when the funny, articulate and relaxed executive was pegged to lead Mini, acquired by BMW, through its next stages of development.

Mini was known for doing the outrageous. In one advertisement a few years ago, the brand gave away a box of Krispy Kreme donuts and called them "cop repellents." Ask any owner and they'll tell you the Mini experience is much more than the car itself: it's a culture you become swept up in.

The icon was established and it was McDowell's job to push it right to the edge by pushing buyers' hot buttons.

With a model expansion on the horizon to augment the first new-generation Mini, and with competitors ready to take up the challenge, Mini needed a leader.
That's what he has done.

McDowell found a new ad agency for the brand, considered new uniforms for all of Mini's technicians and cooked breakfast for his staff members before big meetings.

His motto: "There is a huge advantage to being the first to do something," he said. "It's better than being the follower."

He still loves Mexican food, works out every day at 5:30 a.m. and insists on driving a Mini Cooper convertible instead of a big BMW 7 Series.

Looking for the reason why the Mini brand will continue to soar in the future?
Look at the guy with the infectious laugh, the wealth of knowledge and the desire to be continually better.

It's no secret Mini is doing well. Just ask the guy having fun at the Cape Cod restaurant.


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