In conjunction with the introduction of the new liquid-cooled BMW R 1200 GS, Rider Editor-in-Chief Mark Tuttle sat down for an interview with Hans Blesse, who was recently appointed to the position of Vice President BMW Motorrad USA to succeed the retiring Pieter de Waal. The 51-year-old Blesse started his BMW career in 1987 with BMW Canada. After holding various positions there, he moved to BMW Spain in 2005, then to Munich in September 2008, where he became Executive Vice President of BMW Motorrad Sales and Marketing. During the period in which he was responsible for worldwide motorcycle sales, his greatest achievement was BMW Motorrad’s historic sales record in 2011.
Rider: Please tell us a little about your background with BMW.
Blesse: My Dad likes to tell this story more than I do. He says my career at BMW started when I was six years old because I used to press my nose against the showroom window at a BMW dealer. What he didn’t take into account is that it was also a Ferrari dealership and I was actually looking at the red Ferraris. But it made for a good story.
I’ve been with BMW my entire working life; this year is my 26th. I grew up in a dealership and right after school I joined the dealership. I came to BMW (corporate) because BMW bought out the importer in Canada, and the dealer I worked for was the importer. I worked 17 years in Canada, four years in Spain and four years in Munich (Germany). I’ve been in the U.S. seven months now.
Rider: What’s the primary difference between your former position as BMW Motorrad Executive Vice President of Sales and Marketing worldwide and your new one as Vice President BMW Motorrad USA?
Blesse: The tasks are similar in most respects; the scope is a little different. When you’re working centrally, you’re working 5-15 years out trying to anticipate the kind of products the world needs. It takes a while; people don’t really understand how much work it is to design and develop a motorcycle. When you’re working in the market you’re working in the one to five-year range.
Rider: When you’re designing motorcycle models, are you shooting for a compromise that will work in a lot of countries? Do you have models that are designed specifically for the U.S. market first?
Blesse: Well, an example of the important bikes in the U.S. would be supersports. So when we decided to do the S 1000 RR, of course we looked at the U.S. and what sells in the U.S. and what consumers’ preferences are in the U.S.—that had a big influence on the overall design of the bike. If you look at the K 1600 GTL, the U.S. is the number-one market by far in the world for that motorcycle. We knew that when we were designing the bike, so we took a lot of U.S. input on that bike. That’s why we also built a GT because we knew the GTL wouldn’t be quite as popular in Germany (BMW Motorrad’s number-one market; the U.S. is second at this writing).
Rider: Were you assigned to the Americas to try to take advantage of untapped sales potential?
Blesse: We came up with our global strategy, the company has one, the car side has one—every division has one and we have ours. Looking at the world, the Americas and Asia, we divided up those chunks. Because I’m from Canada and probably know more about North America, and because I speak Spanish, it was pretty natural to say, OK, you get the Americas. We think the Americas as a whole, both north and south, have huge untapped potential.
Rider: What do you think the motorcycle industry in the U.S. is most lacking in?
Blesse: I don’t think there’s any one thing lacking in the U.S. If there’s anything, we probably need a bigger collective voice as motorcycle riders. Things like road usage, land use—those are important issues. My first impression of being in the U.S. is that there’s not enough energy put into those things.
Rider: You had said that getting more people into the sport is a pet peeve of yours. Can you talk a little about that?
Blesse: One of the challenges with motorcycling compared to, say, learning to fly, is if you want to go for a sample flight it’s $50. If you want to learn how to skydive, it’s $250 for a buddy jump. If you want to learn how to scuba dive, it’s $350 in Cozumel. How do you decide that you want to ride? Where is that opportunity? Most of the people we know ride because someone in their family or close circle of friends introduced them to riding. But for somebody who’s one house over, how do they get that chance? Clearly it’s up to us (current riders) to say, “Come ride with me.”
Rider: You mean as a passenger.
Blesse: Yes. No one I’ve introduced a motorcycle to, except for one person, has not said, “Why haven’t I been doing this for 20 years, this is great.” The more people we expose to it the more likely it is that people will ride.
Rider: Could BMW do a better job of targeting new and returning riders?
Blesse: We believe we do a very good job of it. What you need to understand is that our job is not to get a 17-year-old on a $17,000 motorcycle. The focus has been, and it’s been very successful, that people our age generally came to motorcycling looking for transportation; it wasn’t something we did along with other things, it’s what we did. That’s changed today. If you look at the youth today—my kids are great examples, they’re 19 and 21—when they didn’t have driver licenses their mobility was Mom or Dad. They didn’t need a motorcycle to get anywhere. They also live their lives differently. They do a lot of things virtually that we used to do face-to-face. So the whole need for mobility has changed. Motorcycling in a lot of countries has become a weekend activity. And the weekends are filled with lots of other activities. What we’re finding is that people coming into our brand are typically older—they’re 32-40, they may be returning riders, they may have ridden earlier, but they may not have. They have a career, they have a house, they have the 2.2 kids, and they’re going, “What else is there?” And they’re discovering motorcycles at 32 or 35 and two years later they’re as fanatical as people who have been riding since they were four. So we don’t see that as a conflict.
Rider: Turning to the new R 1200 GS, you mentioned that BMW Motorrad approached the automobile division for help with the bike’s suspension. Can you be more specific?
Blesse: What we have is great synergy between the two divisions. There’s expertise on the motorcycle side that the car side doesn’t have, and vice versa. So we have in the Fiz (BMW’s design facility in Munich), at any given time, 7,000 of the best engineers in the world doing what they do. In this particular case, the car side had lots and lots of experience with semi-active suspensions on the M cars. So our engineers had a chat with them about how to do this, what to watch out for and what the key points are—in fact, the prototype bikes had car parts in them. It’s a good way to shorten the development cycle by drawing on the experience you already have. (As stated in the presentation) the secret’s not in the hardware—anybody can reverse-engineer the hardware—the secret’s in the software, so you have access to the people who write the software and there’s a great exchange at a very high level. That was the launch pad—then it had to go through a very serious development cycle for a motorcycle. But you’re not starting from zero.
Rider: Do you think the American boxer enthusiast is ready for a liquid-cooled model?
Blesse: Absolutely. I don’t see it as a big issue. We’re selling out of the air-cooled ones so that’s a good sign—if anybody wants one they need to get it now. We worked very hard to integrate it (the liquid cooling); many people don’t even recognize that it’s water-cooled. It’s mostly air-cooled still anyway.
Rider: Were specific steps taken to conceal the radiators beyond shrouds, like the size of them, for example—were they pared down to the smallest possible size or…?
Blesse: When you’re doing something like a radiator, function has to come before form—there’s no point in having it look good and have the bike not cool. So the engineers kept the holy high ground on that one and the designers took a step back. Once the engineers figured what they needed as far as surface area, angles and flow, the designers go to work and say, OK, how do we integrate it into the whole package?
Rider: Does liquid-cooling the bike enable you to make improvements in other areas?
Blesse: We were shooting for even better fuel mileage and, of course, lower emissions while raising the compression. That’s the whole reason for doing the design to begin with.
Rider: Are there any other significant changes in the bike’s geometry, say its wheelbase?
Blesse: When we did the bike we got a lot feedback. There are 170,000 customers out there and some of them really take the time to put pen to paper. So we get lots and lots of feedback from people that use that bike all over the world in all kinds of conditions. One of the things that came out was just more traction. So one of the major changes on the bike was a longer swingarm. To get the longer swingarm you needed a more compact engine, to get a more compact engine you had to relocate the clutch, and then one thing feeds into another.
Rider: Thank you. So what do you miss most about your post in Munich?
Blesse: Getting up really early on a Friday morning, playing hooky and going riding in the Alps with friends.
(This Hans Blesse interview was published in the April 2013 issue of Rider magazine.)