BMW chief’s collapse highlights executive stress

Andrew Hill
Harald Krueger, chief executive officer of Bayerische Motoren Werke AG (BMW), center, is assisted after collapsing during a BMW press conference at the IAA Frankfurt Motor Show in Frankfurt, Germany, on Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2015.
Chris Ratcliffe | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Of the few things we know about boss's Harald Krüger's collapse at the Frankfurt motor show, one seems to be clear. Before he took to the stage, he felt ill and someone — probably Mr Krüger himself — decided to go ahead with the presentation anyway.

Was it the right decision? It was certainly understandable. He is a new chief executive who was due to speak at his home motor show. Cancelling would have looked bad. It would certainly have fuelled gossip.

But that is nothing compared with the speculation that his collapse will have set off.

Happily, BMW says he is "recovering well". The most probable explanation is that he picked up a bug on one of the international trips that are routine for chief executives.

Whether we shall ever find out precisely what triggered his collapse seems unlikely, though. Companies remain coy about their senior executives' health.

I'm a long-term China optimist: BMW CEO
I'm a long-term China optimist: BMW CEO

It is unusual, for example, for boards to admit that their senior executives are exhausted: after all, they appointed the men and women in charge. It is still almost unheard of for directors to link episodes of chief executive fatigue to stress.

Latterly, some companies have agreed to allow their CEOs time off to recover from the effects of pressure — notably Lloyds Banking Group, with António Horta-Osório in 2011, and Akzo Nobel, with Ton Büchner in 2012. Both men returned and continue to head their respective companies.

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Prevention, though, is better than cure. Whatever Mr Krüger's case, I hope BMW, like other companies, has learnt that recently appointed chief executives need particular support, lest they run themselves ragged in their first few months in an attempt to prove they are up to the role.

Back to Mr Krüger's shall-I-shan't-I decision. A few years ago, I would probably have said he should press on, for reasons similar to those that dictated that George H.W. Bush should participate in a banquet in Japan in 1992, despite suffering from a nasty virus. Protocol and public relations demanded it.

But the circumstances surrounding corporate officers' public appearances have changed. Trade fairs have always involved a certain amount of razzmatazz — motor shows, in particular — but increasing amounts of CEO time are now showbiz, whether the executives like it or not.

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Even when they are not officially on camera, or even on the record, their performances may be recorded and transmitted.

Virtually everyone remembers that President Bush's decision to attend the banquet ended with his throwing up and collapsing into the lap of the Japanese prime minister. That is due to the status of the participants, but also because of the video of the incident, released later and still available on YouTube.

Pressures on senior executives are unlikely to lessen. But in an era when chief executives' viruses can go viral, too, they need to be more careful about how they feel before they put themselves under the spotlight.

In business, if not in entertainment, the show need not always go on.