From 1976 to 1978, Panke was a researcher at the Swiss Institute for Nuclear Research and a lecturer at the University of Munich. From 1978 to 1982, he was a consultant with McKinsey & Company. In 1982, he started at his career at Bayerische Motoren Werke (BMW), where he joined as a head of planning and control of the research and development division. He later added that his attraction to the company was based on the reputation the company had for encouraging creativity and independence among its staff.
Over the next 20 years, Panke worked his way up through the company, working in nearly every department. He managed the US manufacturing facility that was responsible for building, as well as corporate planning, organisation, staff, IT, finance and sales. In 2002, when the chairman at the time, Joachim Milburg, resigned on health reasons, Panke was the clear choice for succession. During his tenure, he was praised for leading the company’s internationalisation and his refusal to move the company into the lower priced mass market.