Baumgartner, Brand & Schiltach.
It’s likely that the exploded version of the BBS acronym is alien to most, but it reveals a key point about one of the most recognised and respected wheel companies on the planet: It was started out of passion. It was started by real people.
Heinrich Baumgartner and Klaus Brand started their company in Schiltach, Germany in 1970. What began as a small enterprise creating custom plastic body parts, BBS shifted its focus to wheels in 1972. The rest is history.
Over the years, BBS has designed and created wheels which can be described as nothing less than iconic. The RS, E50, E88 and LM are just some of the designs coveted by enthusiasts around the world.
So often they are considered to be the only wheel choice for certain models of cars. Can you really say it’s an E30 M3 without BBS?
It hasn’t all been sunshine and lollipops for the German brand, however. With the rise of material costs in the early 2000s, BBS began to slip and ultimately became insolvent in 2007. They were acquired by Belgian company Punch International around this time, before other equity investors took the reins 2012. In 2015, BBS was again acquired by another holding company.
While BBS survives today, it still relies on the legacy forged by Baumgartner and Brand to carry the company’s reputation.
This cycle of the company changing hands again and again hasn’t gone unnoticed. One person in particular who has been paying attention is Klaus Wohlfarth.
We first introduced Klaus on Speedhunters in 2010, following a trip to that year’s running of the Nürburgring 24 Hour. If I remember correctly, it was my first ever trip abroad for Speedhunters, and my very first press trip. After the race, Klaus took us on a personal tour of the KW Suspensions factory in his hometown of Fichtenberg, Germany.
Actually, the factory isn’t just in his hometown, it is physically located around his house, such was the evolution of the business which literally started in Klaus’s back garden.
I remember coming away from that trip fascinated by Klaus’s passion for cars, and particularly those which were housed in his personal garage.
This is something I’ve seen time and time again over the years from true leaders within the automotive industry. It’s one thing to be a successful business outside of our world, but if you want to really succeed in the automotive aftermarket you have to have the fire for cars inside you.
There wouldn’t be a token trip to Fichtenberg this time to speak with Klaus; instead my living room and a pre-arranged Teams meeting would have to suffice. Still, it was great to catch up with Klaus, along with our own technical editor, Ryan Stewart.
These conversations never feel like business, but rather just some people talking about their car lives. It’s been an unusual and challenging past year for all involved, but Klaus and KW have made the most of a bad situation by completing construction projects at the factory in order to improve their production processes. Now, robots take care of the warehouse and all of its various goings on 24/7, while humans continue to hand build the coilovers.
It didn’t take long for the conversation to turn to the recent industry news that KW Automotive will acquire BBS this month.
“It’s pretty much a dream come true,” Klaus told us. “If you ask anyone in the industry if they would want to own BBS, they would say yes. When I was a teenager, I wanted so badly to have BBS wheels on my Opel Kadett C. Thirty years later, it’s not a set of wheels, it’s the entire company.”
Last September, Klaus was having pizza with a friend who raised the topic of what was happening at BBS at the time. After making some enquiries via a friend at BBS, Klaus was put in touch with the insolvency lawyers the very next day. “I had to make an indication within the first few days if I was interested or not. The first meeting gave me a really good impression. We covered what had went wrong in the past, and what the future should be.”
“We are all enthusiasts in the aftermarket industry. We buy cars, we modify cars, we try to make them better. Some guys want to go fast, some want to lower their cars and some want to build really nice show and shine cars. It’s a part of our personality. I am lucky that I can make a living helping others to modify their cars with our products.”
“BBS started in racing and the aftermarket, and we need to put a focus on the aftermarket again. The OE business became a more important part of the business [for BBS], and they moved away from the aftermarket. It didn’t really work out. The recent owners didn’t have any passion for the aftermarket industry like most of us do. We love to build and drive unique cars, and not mass-produced vehicles. There hasn’t been much effort towards the [aftermarket] product line in 15 years, if not longer.”
Klaus however remained impressed by the connection that BBS still has with this part of the market, despite BBS not paying attention to it for so long. He remarked that the biggest demand is for products which BBS no longer produces, such as some of the iconic three-piece wheels. “I always try to listen to the market, the customers. The fans will tell you what they want, you need to listen.”
The similarities between KW and BBS are interesting to note, even aside from the fact that KW once upon a time made their own wheels, including the cult KW Turbo. Both companies started life as passion projects by real car enthusiasts, and both companies still carry those founder’s names.
“After 2007 [BBS’s first insolvency] there was no B or B, just S. The founders lost everything. After that investor failed, another got involved but they didn’t share the passion for our industry. Acquiring a company for them is a business. They try to fix it, and sell it for more money than they paid. It’s never been my intention to make a lot of money and exit the industry. You only think about the next product, never about selling the company.”
“The previous shareholders had no experience of the aftermarket, they only wanted to pursue OEM. This isn’t my motivation. We will of course continue the OEM work – we love the challenge of working with vehicle manufacturers – but our core business and the real challenge we want is the aftermarket. This is the new strategy for BBS.”
Klaus’s emotional connection with the BBS brand was what kicked this acquisition into gear, but more than passion is required if this venture is to be a success. “I thought that KW might be a perfect partner for BBS. We can encourage BBS to design and build new wheels for the aftermarket.”
“The aftermarket is probably the most difficult market to serve. Everyone has different expectations; everyone wants to be special. KW tries to cater for a very demanding customer looking for the perfect solution to their requirements, while with ST Suspensions we established a way to customise a suspension product on a level never seen before, and that’s a different audience.”
“[Customers] have different budgets and demands depending on age, job etc. As a company, we have always tried to provide a solution to every customer request. It’s an area where we have expertise, and one we want to share with BBS in the future.”
“If you don’t take customers seriously, or don’t listen to them, it’s very hard to succeed in that market. There’s plenty of people who want to have a BBS wheel, but they have very specific requirements. If BBS can’t meet those, then BBS isn’t an option for them. We have to change that.”
“BBS doesn’t need to have 15 new designs; they have designs, they have a design language that’s very strong. Everyone has a clear idea of what a BBS wheel should look like. BBS has written so much history and have put so many iconic products on the market, but not all of them are available anymore.”
It seems then that KW’s intention with BBS isn’t an outright revolution, but to deliver perhaps what BBS should have been doing all along. That is, leaning on the company’s incredible catalog of wheel designs but offering them in modern fitments with more customisation than ever before.
It’s not something which KW can do overnight, and Klaus admits as much. “It’ll take time to change the processes [at BBS] from 100% OEM to cater for aftermarket demands. It’s a big step.”
“What has been damaged in the last 15 or 20 years, KW cannot fix in a few weeks. It will take months, if not years to get BBS back to a level we would like them to be at. I have a pretty strong inner vision about how I would like to see BBS and what BBS should be known for. If we can retain the quality and gain a level of flexibility for market demands, we should be in a better position.”
“There’s a reason why BBS has such a great reputation, and it’s down to the experiences people have had with the product. It’s a superior product. When you look behind the scenes and discover how BBS manufactures wheels, and compare it to others in the market, suddenly you realise how much effort is put into making a BBS wheel.”
“The quality requirements that BBS put on themselves is at a level I’ve never seen before.”
For all the talk of BBS’s future strategies, Klaus is keen to bring everything back to the people involved in BBS. Not just Baumgartner and Brand, but the people who work at BBS.
“We made a small announcement locally to the staff, to let them know that we hope to take over in June. Within minutes, it was all over the internet. I was really surprised by the reaction; we got a lot of messages of congratulations saying that BBS was going to be in the right hands. I hope we can live up to that. There’s a lot of hope, passion and positive things about this.”
“The people who created BBS, some who have been working there over 30 years, hundreds of people, are now going through their third insolvency. They have all the reasons to be worried and disappointed with that situation, but hopefully I’m the one that becomes known as the guy who turns things around and puts BBS back where it belongs.”
“I have a smile in my eyes when I talk about BBS. It’s a huge responsibility, and it’s not just about money. They haven’t had the right leadership in nearly 15 years, and I want them to be proud. I need their support, I can’t do it without them.”
As the call came to its natural conclusion, Klaus briefly discussed how they could rely on KW’s network around the world, which allows them to work closely with their customers. It’s hoped that this network will also support BBS’s future strategies.
Before we ended, Klaus added that there’s still a lot more of BBS’s story to come…