Cometh the hour, cometh the man.
Jan-Ake Jonsson has been Saab’s man of the hour. With a cool head and a calm voice he has consistently spread the message of Saab independence despite all the distractions of the reorganisation process.
Got a customs problem? We will sort it out, but the important thing is that we continue talks with the government and work towards carving Saab out from GM.
Got a supplier problem? Yes, but we have worked out payment and now we focus on continuing the work we need to do for Saab’s movement to a new owner.
Those answers would seem like avoidance of the question if the actions taken weren’t proven to be true. The fact is that under JAJ, the team at Saab are working to overcome these obstacles, all with their eyes on the bigger picture. Under JAJ’s leadership, things get done. No fuss. No screaming. They just get done.
Dagens Industri have a great interview piece with Jan-Ake Jonsson that’s less about Saab and a little more about him. It’s a great read and my thanks go to ctm for sorting out a translation for us to read here at SU.
And by the way, I took some comfort when I read JAJ’s comments about the iPhone. I feel exactly the same when it comes to phones.
Jan Åke Jonsson isn’t afraid of the icy headwind or a frosty Maud Olofsson. But for the man with the auto industries most vulnerable job right now – CEO of Saab Automobile – life is not just about reorganization of the company, the owners catastrophic crisis, or the political game with the government. He rather speaks of the meeting with Nisse Liedholm, the favorite team AIK, marathon running, and his daughters twins.
Jan Åke Jonsson’s eyes lights up a little extra when the grandchildren are mentioned.
– “It is among the most enjoyable I’ve been through. They are seven months old now. When I am in Gothenburg I usually visit them in the evenings every now and then. It is relaxing, you realize that there are other things in life that means something.”
Relaxation is certainly needed. At the time of writing, the drama with Saab is not over, probably not as you read it either, and the situation will probably deteriorate further in the coming months.
– “Sometimes you get punched, it’s something you have to accept. That is how it is in the business and in life in general. You will be beaten up.”
Jan Åke Jonsson laughs and pull down his Saab cap over the forehead. The wind swirls over the ice on Sautusjärvi, and it’s biting cold even though the temperature is not that low.
The reason we are here, some distance from Jukkasjärvi, is to get a taste of Saab’s new 9-3X, which was launched at the Geneva Motor Show this week. A car that, according to plan, will go into manufacturing in July – with the small reservation that Saab has to be around as a car manufacturer at that time.
– “We are trying to live up to all the rules and regulations of the reorganization process, which are not very clear or directly tailored to the condition in the automotive industry. It is a very stressful situation.”
But Jan Åke Jonsson shows no signs of that. Despite the storm around him, both figuratively and literally, he is just as usual. Cool, jocular, almost a little preoccupied.
– “By nature I’m fairly quiet and calm. It’s something I find useful and also that fact that I have such long experience. I’ve been through a lot and found myself in different stressful situations in the past.”
Sometimes his almost unreal optimism seems to be completely unfounded. When GM in December started talking about getting rid of Saab, Jonsson’s comment was: “We are in a very positive position now.” The same day he had to submit an application for reorganization, he talked about “ensuring a prosperous future for Saab.”
One blow after the other hits you, and you just say that it corresponds exactly with your plans?
– “As long as I think so, I will say it. Then there are others who want to hear something different, who seeks something other than reality. I do not accept that. Many want hear the panic stories, while the reality is that you usually have more time than most people believe.”
Is there nothing that can break you, like there is for the rest of us?
– “Of course I’m frustrated every now and then. At the same time, I represent 4,500 employees and 1,100 dealers, and also a number of customers. Then you have to take leadership. You must be able to handle things that make you frustrated. That is an important feature of a leader.”
Have you performance anxiety?
Jan Åke Jonsson respond with a surprised question: “Performance anxiety? Absolutely not. However, I feel very bad when I fail and very good when I succeed. I think that is essential, you must have the will to succeed. You cannot feel the same regardless if it is good or bad.”
Maybe it is the sport that has shaped Jan Åke Jonsson. As a child he was very interested in soccer and he soften directly when I ask him to tell about the meeting with legendary Nisse Liedholm. Both grew up in Valdermarsvik, and Jan Åke Jonsson uncle knew the Liedholm family.
– “Nisse was visiting his home town one summer, and I and two friends had the opportunity to meet him at his parents home were also his sister Margareta and brother Kalle lived. We got autographs and the local newspaper was there and took a picture. I’ve still have that article.”
Why didn’t you also became a pro soccer player?
– “Most boys have had that dream and I played a lot of years. I was midfielder and forward, offensive midfielder, and actually scored a lot of goals.”
And the interest in soccer is still there, even if it is confined to a single team: AIK. Sometimes it is shown in strange ways. After the premiere of the 9-4X concept in Detroit last year, the herd of journalists from around the world were drawn to the stand. But when the Swedes arrived, and particularly a colleague who is also an AIK-buff, Jan Åke Jonsson asked not what we liked the car – but: “What do you think about that player from Uruguay?” (AIK’s new acquisitions from Uruguay last year, Jorge Anchor.)
– “Have to blame my dad. And why he chose AIK is a good question. When we lived in Valdemarsvik, the teams were Sleipner or IFK Norrköping. But for some reason, my brother is ‘djurgårdare’.” [Fan of a rival soccer team to AIK in Stockholm.]
Nowadays, sport is mostly about running. Jan Åke Jonsson has registered to participate in Göteborgsvavet (“for the tenth or eleventh time”) in May [a half-marathon race in Gothenburg] and the Stockholm Marathon two weeks later.
– “When I am out running, it’s usually 10-15 kilometers each time. Sometimes I run every other day, sometimes I don’t run for a whole week. Now I’m unfortunately in a period of once a week and I think it’s really frustrating that I cannot run more often.”
But you have run the marathon before, so you will do well anyway?
– “Hey, when you are on the second lap down by the water in Stockholm and you know you have to go up that bridge… It requires a mental strength to make it all the way up!”
And that is something you have?
– “Well, I think I’m more stubborn. At least according to my parents. Incredibly stubborn.”
Do you benefit from you interest in sport when you sit down in negotiations with the government or the GM honchos?
– “Absolutely. To keep in shape is important, and when you’re out exercising you clear your head. And as an athlete you want to win, that is what it’s all about.”
That absolute desire to win is hardly a typical Swedish mentality, but Jan Åke Jonsson fits into the stereotype in other ways. He is not much to highlight himself and or show off gadgets, such as expensive watches.
– “No, this is a giveaway clock from the U.S. that has Saab printed on it. I got that one for free.”
You are not interested in gadgets, do not rush off and buys an Iphone?
– “No, I usually say I want a mobile phone that I can call with and receive calls on. I’m probably a fairly typical Swede in that sense.”
Jan Åke Jonsson studied programming until he one day in 1971 went from Valdemarsvik to the formerly Saab-Ana in Nyköping and asked if they had any job. Then the career rolled on, with a variety of assignments within Saab-Scania and, eventually, General Motors.
Were you interested in cars when you were young?
– “I was very interested in cars, took my driving license four weeks after my eighteens birthday. My father was an Opel fan. Had Opels all his life. He started with a Rekord, then Kadett’s for many years, then a Rekord again, one of the more luxury versions.”
In December 2004 Jan Åke Jonsson got a top position at GM: he became responsible for sales and marketing of all GM brands in the Nordic countries, Benelux countries, and Switzerland, working out of Stockholm.
– “We had a house in Gothenburg, which we then sold. A few months later, it was in February 2005, we were busy with the move to the new apartment in Stockholm. Then the phone rang, it was Carl-Peter who wanted me to become CEO of Saab Automobile instead.”
Carl-Peter’s last name is Forster and he is the head of GM in Europe.
– “For me, who had worked so long at Saab and now got the opportunity to take the top position within the company, it was difficult to say no. Then GM presented a five-year plan for Saab, which was very attractive. I thought it looked damn good.”
That is the plan that Saab is now fighting to implement.
– “We squeezed in some new stuff along the way, like four-wheel drive – and 9-3X. It was not planned from the beginning.”
He admits that the last year, when GM started to falter, has been tough. But, hardly surprising, he knows no bitterness against the owner.
– “It is always easy to re-write the history afterwards. But now we are in the situation we are and now we have to use GM in the best possible way. We must look forward.”
There he is again – the incurable optimist.
So what will happen? An answer about Saab’s future is nothing we had expected, and we did not get that either.
– “We will join the top national league in ice hockey and we’ll also win the national soccer league. Or what do you think?”