A Cowboy and the big surf

I will keep this post at the top during the weekend as it may be of interest for many.



More on Christopher Johnston and Merbanco

I want to begin by letting you know why my first post on SaabsUnited deals with a company and person that has been a topic many times before here on SU. Our dear friend Swade has done a couple of brilliant interviews with Christopher Johnston (CJ) CEO of Merbanco.

But the fact is, questions may vary with time and Saab has now been in the most capable hands of Spyker for over a year. Things change and maybe even personal reflections.
CJ is, besides being a businessman on a grand scale, a true lover of Saab and has also been seen commenting quite frequently on SaabsUnited.

This interview is intended to focus a bit more on CJ´s thoughts regarding product, dealerships, markets and perception of the Saab brand and product. Oh and yes, a wee bit on the deal that did not happen.

As always a Big thank you to CJ for taking the time to answer our questions and being so open towards us.

My SaabsUnited contact with Christopher Johnston, CEO Merbanco

I got in contact with Christopher a while ago to see if he would be willing to give his personal views on some of the questions that had been lingering for quite some time in relations to Merbanco´s bid to acquire Saab Automobile from General Motors. Questions that many of us have asked ourselves and pondered over but as yet had an explanation for. Questions like what his views are on the current and future Saab product portfolio. As a friend of SaabsUnited and an allover genuinely good bloke, CJ agreed to give his answers to questions compiled from the SaabsUnited team.

So click on through and find out more. And why “the big surf” in the headline?

(Please note that Chris´s answers are based on his own views and does not necessarily reflect the views of other individuals within Merbanco or involved business partners.)


YOU DON´T DRIVE A SAAB CJ!?! …Oh gezz, you scared me a bit there mate

I started out in an all informal way and asked CJ if he still drives a Saab? The answer to that question is…No he does not.
In his driveway stands a Chevy Silverado Hybrid Pickup and an E-Class Mercedes.

But good news! Chris Is looking to buy a Saab 9-3 TurboX. So if there is a dealership that has got a sweet deal for CJ on an X, do not hesitate to get in contact and I´ll forward him the info. That´s what friends are for eh?

The Merbanco bid and Chris´s views on the sales process

Deciding to try and buy a company like Saab is nothing one does without thinking the deal through several times before acting and really being sure that you have the means to pull it through. On a question on how such a grand scale business deal takes place, CJ responded that it in fact may be looked at as buying a car and signing on the dotted line. The big difference being the sheer size of the deal. Just like in buying a car you have to go through the due diligence phase. Analyzing everything, challenging plans and testing assumptions. And in CJ´s own words:

If you don’t do enough due diligence, you may be surprised by what you buy.  You have to kick the tires and turn over every rock.  You have to ensure it has ‘soul’ and you must understand the brand and what it means in every market.”

As we know, Merbanco´s bid was refused by GM. There may be many reasons as to why. It might have been CJ´s outspoken critique towards the lack of engagement from the Swedish Government or it might have to do with one of CJ´s businesses failing in the wake of the weak economy in 2009. Times were hard and as we know even companies the size of General Motors where on the brink of bankruptcy.
CJ is open with the fact that he was not the financial muscle behind the group. And if personal issues where behind GM´s and the Swedish Governments decision to end talks with Merbanco, I can really feel the agony from CJ´s point of view. Quote from CJ:

“The process was set by others and we were discouraged from reaching out to the government along the way. Like many here, we were very frustrated by the lack of support when watching Saab slowly die.”

Personally I would not even begin to try and understand the politics involved in all this as I do not have the proper financial or legal education to take on such a daunting task. What I can say is that I am a human being, and I have a heart. Thing is, what matters of the heart do not often mix that well with business.

According to CJ, and a source I like to be unnamed, Merbanco indeed had a solid bid and plan. I´ll let a quote from CJ tell you just why:

“Our group was well qualified and funded – we went through a very detailed examination and vetting with both Deutsche Bank and GM.  We had the right experience, specifically in automotive, manufacturing, branding and world wide dealer/distribution.”

The refusal of Merbanco´s bid might also have been a question of Sweden versus the US. The Swedish Government often argued that GM didn´t do as much as they could and that might have resulted in negativity towards letting yet another US company in as a potential owner of Saab Automobile.
What is CJ´s take on what American ownership in the form of Merbanco could have meant for Saab?

“Had we closed, Saab would have had American and Swedish owners…the ‘perfect storm.’ Our bid all along was to complete a management buyout and management and employees would have owned between 20% and 30% of the company.  I believe now that being American hurt us with the government and maybe that was ok. I can’t help but think that, today, sales in North America would be enhanced with owners from America who know this market very, very well.”

Everyone is entitled to their own opinion but I can´t say that I´m with CJ in his assessment and what might have been when it comes to sales in the US and American ownership. Saab NA is an American operation, and I believe that it is only the way of letting the buyers know about the cars and who the buyers really are that has yet to be manifested. Saab NA is run by people that understand the American market, but get directions from Saab management as it ought to be. Saab after all is a company based in Sweden.
I hope that we can agree to disagree on that one CJ?
And as stated, sales have been halted somewhat due to other factors, like the economy, and I would say to a large extent, by the negativity shown from certain members of the press.

I asked CJ what he feels about The Saab business plan. The response?

“The Saab plan and team were very solid.  Sales were an important ingredient and have impacted the plan. We expected the sales were optimistic – we were lucky to have had time to complete due diligence and model testing. Our expectations were more conservative than the plan given the economy and challenges in the USA.”

And before the press jumps the gun on that one I would like them to please bear in mind that the current Saab Management team have come a long way since February 2010 and are doing so well. I can feel no threat to a positive future. Saab is planning ahead, making connections with new subcontractors, expanding its market among other tasks. Things are looking brighter each day because of the tenacity of the Saab management, enthusiasts around the world, superb dealerships and the hard working people of Trollhättan, Sweden.

Saab is now in the very capable hands of the new Saab management team.
As I see it, a team that has achieved so much in so little time is a team to be trusted and supported to its fullest.
And please note that I say so in the uttermost respect to all the groups that invested so much in hopes of acquiring Saab Automobile. We ought to be truly grateful for the interest they showed and that some of them still support Saab in ways they can.

I would like to end this part of the interview with a personal acknowledgment from CJ to Saab and people he met during the sales process and how strongly he supports our beloved brand.

“I am grateful to have made friends with an outstanding team at Saab and, when the going got tough, at the darkest hour, we were there. I became close with several people at Saab, including Jan Ake. Those who were involved know the huge efforts we made to buy, and then save, Saab. The story was long and complicated…even when we stopped the chase, we continued to help Saab. That is a promise I made personally to the team and I’m glad it turned out well. To me that says a lot.”

Dealer network, markets and dealerships

The main focus from Merbacos side in the process was the dealer network, distribution and customer experience. And being an American he was asked to give his view on what he believe needs to be done in North America to boost sales and what obstacles Saab NA and dealers have to get past.

The Saab dealer network has been abused these last several years…by the economy, by the sale, by low residuals, and by the challenges.  I’m proud they hung in there with the company, shows unbelievable dedication.  Dealers, distribution and the customer experience are the “plasma” for the company.  The dealer is on the front line and defines the company and the dealer is who provide the customer experience. The dealers are absolutely critical to success in the US.  In Sweden and Britain, Saab has a strong “corporate” following.  In the USA, it is an iconic brand, some thing for those who want to be “different”.  Thus, there are two (or more) different Saabs.”

And difference in Canada?

Same as the USA, dealers interact with the customer, both past, present, and future.  Regaining trust will take time – one bad experience will impact this.  Customers have to have a reason to want a Saab, to trust Saab – that this is commitment and unsurpassed care and service.”

We asked CJ what he sees as key for the Saab dealerships.
How would he like a customer to be approached? What would the dealership look like and what kind of feeling should the customer get from the atmosphere and design of the facilities? Is the latter important at all?

“There are several ‘customers.’ People who own a Saab, people who once owned a Saab, new people interested in Saab.  As a small company, the customer experience should be more simple and friendly, very ‘uncorporate’ in the USA.  Anyone walking into a Saab dealership should be treated like family and they must leave believing they are part of the family, or very much wanting to be part of the family.”

It becomes clear after reading some of CJ´s answers to our questions, that connection to the customer is something CJ cares about a lot. Or the right word might be passionate. And that is a big piece of what I like very much about CJ.

CJ´s biggest priority was the sales process and the dealership connection to the customer. How does he feel Saab can strengthen that area in the most tangible and measurable ways?

“Knowing the great product pipeline at Saab, selling them was the key. The dealer network had been impacted heavily by the economy and the sale/closure/sale whipsaw. As mentioned earlier, the Saab experience must be family, specially here in the USA. Alongside the product, Saab’s strength is its loyalty, and also the fact that it isn’t BMW, Audi, Lexus, etc.  If you try to fight them on their ground, they will kill you. When I bought a car from Just Saab in Cincinnati a while back, I pulled the trigger because they offered a great value and a great commitment.  There are a lot of great cars out there these days, a great commitment.”

Product, the typical Saab buyer and… surfing

The product is the visible part of Saab and often the part that got us to become Saab drivers and enthusiastic about the brand. And if you would like CJ´s view of product, well ladies and gentlemen, this is some really interesting reading right here.
Besides the products that are now on market and products that were in the pipe in 2009, what kind of vehicles would CJ like to have seen if Merbanco had taken the helm?
What about the PhoeniX?
And how does CJ define the typical Saab driver?

First a short list of desired products, then detailed answers and then… Hmm, I guess someone in the SaabsUnited team will have to come back to this in an article regarding… Saab pickup trucks.

  • An updated 900
  • A Saab pickup truck

“We wanted to bring back an updated 900 – that was the model that really defined Saab here in the USA.  We also discussed a Saab pickup truck similar in concept to a previous Pontiac or Holden G8 model. I could see the surf/ski crowd using the sport pickup and we thought Sweden and Europe would take too it as well. We thought it would be fun to broaden the model range within the size footprint.”

And with that I can almost hear some of you go: “SAY WHAT?!?”
But to be honest I think that this is so cool, debatable, and plain good fun to write about!

Price, profit, experience

Some people argue that Saab’s are too expensive. Some feel that Saab is aiming for the wrong kind of buyer– that Saab ought to sell on the brand qualities like design, safety, spirited driving characteristics and that that may be obtained with a car at a lower price and tech level and still be uniquely Saab.

What’s CJ’s take on creating a more affordable car like the New 900/9-3 model that came out in 1994? A car that was unmistakably Saab. A car that still managed to be on par or in many points better than the competition although some of the parts where gathered from the parts bin of an inferior new sibling. Saab showed that they could do wonders in a short amount of time with what was given to them.

“A car can be expensive as long as there is value and care, and attention. There must be support on residual value to justify the cost and I would love to see a free scheduled maintenance plan if the product is expensive. I don’t think small is the way to go. I do believe that a simple and safe Saab, without all the ‘bells and whistles’ would appeal to a certain segment.  Think about it, how many families have a car for their children here in the USA – they don’t need to be fancy, parents want safety.”

Suffice it to say, there are as many feelings towards this as there are people commenting on SU. I can not see the reason for turning away from the path now taken by Saab. But I do believe that Saab in time would benefit from a smaller car with unmistakable Saab characteristics, base equipment level and a price tag to go with it. Not the price of an econobox but the likes of that “Das Boring” brand. (Did you copyright that name Steven?) 😉

The typical Saab driver

A car is nothing without its driver. So nearing the end of this interview, I’d like to know in  CJ’s opinion: what kind of person drives a SAAB?

“In the USA, any smart, independent, rebellious, snow driver, passionate. People who like engineering details and like a sporty driving experience. Also, singular workers like attorneys and engineers are Saab people. Saab owners appreciate people who care.”

And here is my personal note as a response to that view of the typical Saab driver:
I’m not an engineer neither am I especially rebellious and on occasion somebody might have accused me for not being that smart, but I am passionate and appreciate people who care.

And to close the interview… The Big question

Here is a really tough question to end this interview. A question I feel takes some guts to answer from someone that missed out on the chance of ownership, with an answer that reflects what CJ feel so strongly about:

(SU) “Would you like to join the current owners of SAAB as a part-owner?”
(CJ) “Probably not.  It would be fun to look at the USA operations of Saab.”

Christopher Johnston, CEO MerbancoChristopher Johnston, CEO Merbanco

CJ, thank you for your kindness and good will. And thank you all for reading.



48 thoughts on “A Cowboy and the big surf”

  1. Well done, Tompa! Very nice read on a topic I know many of us have wondered about.

    And thank’s, CJ, for taking the time to add more to the fascinating story of the sale and rebirth of Saab!

    Cowboy UP!
    Saab Up!

  2. This was THE interview of the year, so far. Actually it was CJ who kept my spirit alive when almost all hope was gone.
    Thank you CJ and please stay with us saabist people. You did good to many of us. I always searched for yous comments last year. And thank you for giving this interview

  3. A Saab pick-up truck? I’ll leave that uncommented…
    However, as I was reading this piece the thought hit me that, as then stated later in the article, what if CJ was hired by SCNA? It is obviously up to SCNA and mr. Seidl to decide that. In Jonas Fröberg’s book “Kampen om Saab” CJ was not presented in a good light. However, I’m not the one to judge somebody on the basis of a book, but rather the actions and ways of the person. It’s still sad, as Swade stated in an earlier post from Geneva, that the book hasn’t been translated into English. I bought it a week ago and read it in 24 hours 🙂
    Thanks for an interesting post, Tompa!

    • Rod – Google Pontiac G8 sport truck. May not have big in unit volume but it would have made a statement! With a turbo – stunning! Remember, I live where pickup trucks rule.

      All thanks for the nice comments. Saab is doing very well under Victor and JaJ, and they have my full support. Saab has always had my full support – they always will.

      I never met Jonas Fröberg, and don’t recall ever speaking with him. Maybe I helped a bit in him selling books? The folks here know me better than him. Judge for yourselves.

      The interview was fun and I am here alot.

      • Well, it still looks very American and not very “Saab”.
        The point I (apparently didn’t make) about the book is exactly that he didn’t interview you. It’s just opinions and rumors – true or not. I’m glad you’re open and honest about your background! 🙂 And continue to share your views and ideas.

  4. Well done Tompa, that gave us some interesting thoughts. And thanks to CJ for taking the time.

  5. That was an excellent read! A very interesting topic, and well-written to boot. Thank you Tompa, and thank you CJ!

    I have to object to one sentence though:

    “I can feel no threat to a positive future.”

    Excuse me Tompa, but… are you nuts!? Even the biggest and most successful companies, like at the moment BMW and Volkswagen, always have threats to a positive future. For a weak little minnow like Saab, currently struggling in a steep uphill climb, just about everything is a threat to a positive future. The biggest such threat is of course continued weak sales. Perfectly realistic expectations for big improvements in sales don’t put food on the table. Only actual sales do that.

  6. Regarding CJ’s statement…

    “…I can’t help but think that, today, sales in North America would be enhanced with owners from America who know this market very, very well.”

    While we’ll never know, the difference is SCNA had folks with GM experience (that can be good and bad) while CJ’s group likely had a different outlook and might have done something different that worked better.

    As to the What kind of person drives a Saab question, I’ve seen many answers over time but this one is pretty complete in describing me! I’m even an engineer by background that does lawyer-related stuff at times.

    • Steve – it would have been fun working with the US team, especially those with GM experience. Great people all!

  7. Very interesting interview, Tompa. I respect the fact that CJ isn’t a Monday morning quarterback about how VM is running Saab. It would be easy for someone who missed out on acquiring Saab to snipe and second guess everything that has taken place with the company since the acquisition. His ideas about how he would approach certain marketing and product decisions are thoughtful, positive, and show respect to current management. We are all fortunate to have him in our corner — a great resource if VM & Saab ever need him in the future.

  8. Thanks Tompa and thanks to CJ. CJ definitely kept our spirits up during some bleak times. I’m not sure about a Saab pickup myself, but I think some other people here in Australia wouldn’t have minded a Saab version of a Holden Commodore Ute. I think it might have worked in the US too.

    Cowboy Up!

  9. “In the USA, any smart, independent, rebellious, snow driver, passionate. People who like engineering details and like a sporty driving experience. Also, singular workers like attorneys and engineers are Saab people. Saab owners appreciate people who care.”

    Let’s see….

    smart – I like to think so 🙂
    independent – yes, I make my own decisions and do not follow the crowd
    rebellious – not really, but as I said, I do not follow the crowd
    snow driver – no, not much snow here, but sometimes yes
    passionate – why, yes!
    like engineering details – yes!
    like sporty driving experience – yes!
    singular workers like attorneys and engineers – yup, an engineer
    appreciate people who care – of course!

    Well, no wonder I drive a Saab! 🙂

    • the PR and manipulation, I love to see a guy’s integrity standing for what he believes in and not caving into the Detroit power pack.

      Frankly whilst I didn’t want to see them fail, I can’t believe the amount of profit the majors have made in such a short time frame after being supported by the tax payers, BUT more importantly long standing employees that lost a whole host of fundamental benefits, healthcare, retirement etc, and I can tell you I am the antithesis of a union man.

      I lived in Michigan in the 80’s as an exchange student and my host father Phil was a great guy worked tirelessly his whole working life for GM in Saginaw ( Simon and Garfunkel “America”, I hitchhiked from Saginaw”, after all those hard years of work, those guys lost a lot of stuff that was agreed to on the basis of saving the company……. well they restructured and cut loose the brands they didn’t want and the people that had built those brands over the last century.

      Criminal in my view.

  10. Great stuff Tompa and thanks to CJ for sharing his thoughts. I have to admit it was CJ (along with Swade) that kept me sane during those dark dark days at the end of December 09. The both of them never gave up.

  11. Good to hear from you, CJ!

    You helped keep the Saab spirit alive when we thought all hope was gone – and thank you for that.

    Cowboy up!

  12. Thank you CJ and Tompa. This is really good reading and it gives yet another perspective on the sales.
    Someday someone within GM will tell there story?

  13. “Chris Is looking to buy a Saab 9-3 TurboX. ”

    New unsold 2008 Turbo X is sitting on the lot in Lubbock, Texas. Call Michael Wearden (not me) at Scoggin-Dickey Saab 806-794-4000. (My wife does not like black interiors.)

    Just a thought.

  14. Great interview CJ and Tompa! CJ – it’s great having you around the site, I’m happy that you’re sticking around. We need to get you back behind the wheel of a Saab, though! Jorgen’s X sounds like the perfect Saab for you.



  15. Fantastic interview! You really have to live in the American west to understand pickup trucks.
    I grew up with old Chevys, and I always seem to have one, but mine are quite opposite any Saab. Old, rusty, dented, 6 cylinder stick trash hauler type. And almost as loyal as a Saab.

  16. I’ve often referred to my 9-5 Combi as a pickup truck with a permanent camper top. With the approximately 100 USD rubber mat and cargo guard, the cargo area in my Saab has had more use than a couple pickup trucks where I paid hundreds for spray beds. The Saab also gets a minimum of 1.5 times better the gas mileage of any pickemup truck I’ve owned.

    I’ll also echo zippy’s sentiments. Another thanks to CJ for keeping our spirits up back in the dark days.

  17. Thank you, CJ, for such an insightful, and personal interview and glimpse of you. As you know, you became an integral part of the global Saab community through, and after, your bidding process, whether you like it or not !! LOL

    Saab pickup truck ….. not so far-fetched of a concept, actually. Take a look at the 2001 9-X Concept:






  18. Great read, well done Tompa and CJ!

    It is a privilege to be in a bunch like this. I wish you CJ all the best and thank you for dropping in here for us “average” people from time to time 🙂

    I´m a bit torn about the idea of a pick-up truck. OTOH it would attract new and wider range of customers and it is something that no “premium” manufacturer has done, OTOH would it be what Saab is about. Aussie UTE´s don´t really exude sophistication or cutting-edge 🙂

  19. CJ,
    I have the X for You. I am just about to sell my #119. I really would like You to have it.
    It is quite unique:
    – SportsCombi Manual 6 speed
    – Hirsch updated 300 BHP/bigger intercooler, Ferrita stainless steel exhaust
    – ProPerformance Chassis with the unique 19 inch Turbo X wheels (Never sold in the US)
    – Hirsch interior nappa leather dash and all doorhandels in nappa leather
    – Hirsch rear-roof spoiler
    Reason to sell?
    The SUHRT are buying new 9-5’s as promotion cars with unique design features. You guys here at SU will be able to follow that project as well as the work with the rally cars.
    CJ it is quite easy to ship it to the US. That is the way they all enter the new world.

  20. Ken (and All):

    Thanks for the kind wishes and it is great to see so many old friends! We are happy to be part of the Saab global community and we love Saab. We support Saab just as much today as back then. I did have to step back a bit here, out of respect for the company, the team, and Mr. Muller.

    I’d like to think sharing our experience with you guys here, and keeping Steven and all of you informed, helped keep the light on, and lights on at, Saab. You guys helped us alot in return. We should all be glad things turned out the way they did. Saab is in good hands. It was worth it for us.

    The truck wasn’t the future of the company, nor was it a primary focus at the time. Next time you drive, notice all the small pickups out there. We were intrigued with combining a small pickup and outstanding scandinavian/european engineering. We did believe there was a market. More than one, in fact. Could a Saab be a pickup, or could a pickup be a Saab? My 9000 Aero was, at times, a truck disguised as a car. Would it help get people into dealerships? Like the 9-x…Why Not? The whole premise was filling the factory and chasing that darned breakeven volume.

    It sure would have raised a few eyebrows! These days, for Saab, attention helps.

  21. I really appreciate the many attempts to buy and save Saab made by mr. Johnston. However, after reading this interview I’m even more convinced than before that Saab ended up with the best possible owner.
    Let me put it like this; this truck thing and the new Saab 900 (I may be wrong, but I get a retro feeling when I read about that) is one of several roads forward, but it’s not the road I want Saab to take. I guess I’m more of a VM guy, although a have a huge respect for mr. ohnston and the tenacity he shown in the sales process. CJ, good luck with that TurboX.

  22. A company’s assets include good will. Interviews like this show that Saab has plenty in that department.

  23. “Anyone walking into a Saab dealership should be treated like family and they must leave believing they are part of the family, or very much wanting to be part of the family.”

    I like that. This would also be my approach to marketing and customer experience.

    • +1 !

      We all realize that a dealership has to sell cars to survive and have a thriving business, but it is so easy to see the difference between dealers who also care about the customers and their needs vs. those who are more interested in just making another sale. I am sure most would say they care about the customers, but the key is do they do it in such a way that the customers feel it and believe it?

  24. Cowboy up!

    Good to see you CJ here every now and then. Thanks for interview and insightful comments time to time.

    Never forgot when you kept us updated during saab’s darkest hours. It was only about 15 months ago.

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