One afternoon in July, Karen Lim stood proudly on stage as she officiated at the launch of the all-new BMW 5 series. Marketed as “the ultimate business automobile for today’s Business Athletes”, the 5 series is BMW’s most successful business sedan ever. Since its launch in 1972, close to eight million units have been sold globally. The audience was in awe as the BMW 530i Luxury Line and BMW 530i M Sport were unveiled.
“The launch of the all-new BMW 5 Series is one of the most important milestones for BMW Indonesia in 2017,” said Lim, who has been President Director of BMW Group Indonesia for the past three years. An added value to the milestone is that the all-new BMW 5301 Luxury Line cars are assembled locally, at BMW Production Network 2 – PT Gaya Motor in Sunter, North Jakarta. To date, BMW has localised the assembly of BMW X1, X3, X5, 3 Series, 5 Series and, most recently, even the flagship 7 Series. Some 75 percent of all the units that BMW sells here are now put together in Indonesia. BMW has invested some Rp 250 billion in Indonesia since 2011.
“We are expanding our locally-assembled portfolio as part of our commitment to this market,” says Lim during an exclusive interview at her office. “With our local assembly facility, we can tailor-make products which suit market demand and provide technology transfer.”
Before taking charge of BMW’s Indonesian operations, Lim had been with the company for 16 years. She was formerly based in Singapore, her home country, working for BMW Asia. Armed with her Accounting degree, which she gained from Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia, she joined BMW Asia in 1998 as an accountant. She worked her way up from there, and was promoted to Finance Director before being appointed as President Director of BMW Group Indonesia, in succession to Ramesh Divyanathan.
Lim’s appointment has made history, as she is the first woman to lead BMW Group Indonesia – a brand principal of BMW and Mini in the country. On a global scale, Mary Barra was appointed as CEO of General Motors in the same year, making her the first female CEO of a major global automaker.
“A lot of people say that the automotive industry is male-dominated,” Lim ponders. “As a woman, I am very proud to have been able to break this stereotype, and to be in this position. But I believe that assertiveness, aggressiveness and task-oriented leadership abilities are gender-neutral. To be able to use all these qualities in one of the most prestigious companies in the world is an achievement that I cannot overlook.”
Inside the company, Lim swears by strength-based leadership, focusing on the top qualities of each team member to maximise their potential. “By focusing on empowering and listening to people, respect grows between me and my colleagues,” she explains. “It is really important to know each of the team members. This way, I can assign the right task to each of them and support their individual development. In the long run, people who work with their utmost passion grow personally, and help the company itself to develop.”
She discovers the top qualities of her team members through a series of thoughtful and intimate ways of communication. Most distinctive of these is a tradition she started when she first came to BMW Indonesia: Coffee with Karen.
Every Friday, she spares an hour in the morning to sit down with a group of staff members from different departments, to catch up with them. During the hour, she dedicates herself to listening as they explain their challenges at work, their personal achievements, as well as their ideas. Vice versa, the staff members get to ask Lim for advice, and to find out about her plans for the company.
“I have just finished one company-wide round of coffee sessions (the company currently employs over 900), which took almost three months to complete,” Lim says. “I think of myself as a good listener. I always listen first, then only I would give my opinions or advice. It’s something that didn’t change when I moved from Singapore to Indonesia.”
That encouraging quality is what Karen considers to be her strongest quality as a leader. “I’m not your typical big boss, who is feared and very hard to approach,” she says. “I apply an open-door policy, which enables my colleagues to walk into my office anytime they need help with something important.”
In her office, Lim keeps a copy of Strength- Based Leadership, a New York Times bestselling management book by Tom Rath and Don Clifton. Lim says she has developed the qualities of a thoughtful leader based on the example of her mother, whom she admires for her patience with her children. “One important lesson I learned from her is that it is never too late to make changes in life, to follow your passion,” Karen says. She has also learned a lot about leadership from the “father of Singapore”, the late Lee Kuan Yew.
“He was a father who transitioned Singapore from the third world to first world in a single generation under his leadership,” says Lim. “Transformational leadership is a style of leadership where the leader works with subordinates to identify changes needed, creating a vision to guide these changes through inspiration, and executing the changes in tandem with committed members of a group.”
With a strong team behind her, Lim is confident about taking BMW Indonesia to the next level under her leadership. In the next 10 years, one of her top priorities is establishing sustainable mobility in Indonesia. “We’re already the first manufacturer in Indonesia to market a Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle (PHEV),” she points out. “This is also a solid example of providing a smaller carbon footprint to upcoming generations in the years to come.”
Lim talks proudly of the introduction here of the BMW i8, the first and only PHEV in the Indonesian market to date. This innovative plug-in hybrid uses eDrive technology to combine the efficiency of an all-electric motor with the power of a TwinPower Turbo engine. It was named “The Most Favourite Car” at Gaikindo Indonesia International Auto Show (GIIAS) 2016. To raise awareness of sustainable vehicles in Indonesia, BMW has conducted workshops, including one at last year’s GIIAS. The workshop saw BMW partnering with the Indonesian National Police and Ministry of Transportation among others. Besides, the team has held a discussion at the Indonesia Economic Forum 2016 to highlight business and cost surplus by reducing carbon footprint.
In its communication and education efforts, BMW is not only focusing on executives and business people, but also the millennials. “From the workshops we conduct at universities, I am happy to learn that the young generation is generally more aware about environmental issues. The awareness is there, and the brand is more than willing to encourage such positive attitude,” Lim says.
BMW is clearly working on building their brand among the millennials. “I feel that the millennials have a very distinctive quality that the older generations don’t, and it’s their confidence,” says Lim, who is a mother of two. “Their confidence lead them to be very curious, to always want to know about new things in the market, and about what the future brings. They’re very tech-savvy, and what they want to know is what’s next.”
Having realised that, Lim has developed a way of communicating with millennials that is the total opposite of direct selling. Last year, BMW held Innovation Festival, to shed light on the future of human mobility in cities. “I like to talk to the young people about the technology that we’re innovating with, not just the cars,” Lim says. “I think once they realise that BMW is a very innovative company, we could get their interest. Then, they would be looking forward to the next cars, and the next innovations from the brand.”
When she moves on from her current position one day, Lim would like to see local leaders she has helped groom take on crucial roles in the company. “The focus for me, is not so much about economic values, but about the quality of the organisation,” she declares. “The core of the company is innovation, and this 100-year-old brand has helped shaped the automobile industry. Because of that, I would like to see more innovative leaders in Indonesia in the years to come.”