A couple of weeks ago I got in contact with Lars Carlstöm to see if he would be willing to answer some questions from me and the SaabsUnited team of writers. I had never spoken to Lars before, but was welcomed almost like an old friend. Really, he is that friendly!
Lars is as many of you will know a partner to Mr Vladimir Antonov, the VP of Conversgroup Holding Ltd., but he’s also a very friendly guy.
I was hoping for answers to questions I had prepared in a word document, but being the talkative and passionate man that Lars is, he instead returned a story of his journey though one of the most amazing business deals ever made, or at least so in the Automotive sector, GM’s sale of Saab Automobile AB.
I got answers to my questions, only in a different and hearty way.
And no– I’m not going to comment much on what Lars has to say in this article. What you read comes from Lars himself and I found that’s the best way to share his thoughts.
Lars’s story after the jump…
The basis for engagement
My interest in SAAB as a businessman was really a response to the lack of initiative that existed in the, at the time, completely collapsed global economy.
Swedish business/venture capital, which in my opinion should have been a natural owner of SAAB, stayed as far away from the action as possible.
SAAB with one of the world’s most modern and most efficient car plants, two new fully developed models, a debt free company that by the end of the sales process also showed a liquidity of €200M was not interesting enough for the Swedish venture capital industry.
I may be colored by my interest in Saab, but I still can not help but marvel over the lack of interest shown.
The journey began with dialogue and contact with Jan Åke Jonsson, who was in favor of any kind of dialogue on this issue and a good help. He thought that an interesting person to ventilate the issue of a purchase of Saab with would be Jan Nygren, who has his roots in Trollhättan.
Jan has a background as a minister in the Swedish Government and later vice president of the Defence group Saab.
I met Jan in January over lunch at the Opera bar in Stockholm. He was full of energy and positivism of an involvement in a bid for SAAB, and we decided to initiate a consortium and to contact GM’s agent in question, Deutsche Bank in New York, which handled the sale of Saab Automobile. We signed up as bidders in the name of Catherina, after one of Sixten Sasson concept cars in the 60’s.
I began lobbying with meetings all over Europe, and for the first time met Deutsche Bank´s representative Sean Costello at the 2009 Geneva Auto show.
Sean is a special character, but with a warm dedication to SAAB.
One of the partners in Catherina was Cross Industries. Cross Industries is an Austrian automotive group in which, inter alia, motorcycle and car manufacturer KTM is included. Their dedicated Business Manager Werner Wilhelm, who was Head of Development for the VW Pheaton and better known as the “Father of Pheaton”, is a truly charismatic person with forward-thinking ideas.
Together aboard with us was also a Finnish industrial group.
(Questionmark there from me/Tom)
We introduced ourselves to Costello and Jan Åke Jonsson, who were both positive about what the consortium had to offer.
We also spent a lot of time encouraging Siegfried Wolf of Magna to join. Magna were at times interested, but considered the Opel deal as a more attractive deal for their company to pursue. (In retrospect…. That must hurt a bit… Eh Siegfried?/Tom)
There were many interesting people in the advisory board for the consortium. Among them my good friend Charles Morgan.
He has an interest in SAAB because it echoes his own legendary brand Morgan. Because even if SAAB is much bigger, the same fighting spirit and originality can be found in the two companies.
I would say that our group was one of the more interesting options for GM in the spring of 2009.
April 2009: Time for both a bid and a disappointment
After intense and interesting meetings with Saab executives in March 2009, where we saw an impressive line-up of the new 9-5 Saloon, 9-5 Estate and the new 9-4x, the group formed to present our bid on the 30th of April 2009.
Then disaster struck. Our Finnish partners announced their withdrawal from the deal. Of course, a disaster for us all and it meant that only a half-hearted bid could be delivered.
We immediately realized that it would be difficult for us to continue successfully.
GM told us some time later, though Costello, that they had chosen three groups to continue discussions with. One of them was The Koenigsegg group, The rest is history… until November 2009 when GM announced that the deal with The Koenigsegg group had failed.
November 24, 2009
Back to square one. The Koenigsegg group withdrew from the agreement with GM to buy Saab Automobile AB. I got the notification through Saab but it wasn’t yet made official.
I almost threw myself on the phone and called Sean Costello. He confirmed that the deal had failed. He asked to come back to me as he needed to update himself with GM.
In the meantime, I call Jan Nygren and ask “Jan what do we do now?”
Jan believed that we were well prepared and like me think that we should try again with yet another bid.
Costello returns the next day and announces that a new prospectus will be issued in which the deal this time will based on the business plan The Koenigsegg Group formed, although somewhat revised in agreement with SAAB.
I fill out our interest to file a bid and Catherina is once again one of the stakeholders to buy SAAB Automobile AB.
Contacts are made
Jan Nygren gets in contact with Håkan Samuelsson, who just left his post as CEO of MAN.
Jan and I meet Håkan Samuelsson at the Grand Hotel in Stockholm together with Scania veteran Göran Kroon. Håkan is excited and is very interested in trying to take the deal forward.
We had no plan ready on how the acquisition would be financed at that stage, but through Jan’s network of contacts one of the largest insurance companies in Sweden said that they would be interested in being one of the financiers.
With the short lead time all stakeholders had to approve the previously-made business plan that was a condition for the EIB loan of €400M.
Spyker entered the scene and was a strong contender. They had a crystal clear agenda and seemed to be well positioned with GM.
My goal had always been to save Saab and not to run the company, but despite that I could not help but see Spyker as a competitor. Work with Catherina had been a 24-7 job and of course I wanted that work to bear fruit.
Spyker became GM’s favorite pretty quickly and they soon announced that they intended to allow Spyker to negotiate exclusively. The Catherina consortium would be placed on hold.
Victor Muller was called to GM’s European office in Zurich for final negotiations. At the same time I was in contact with GM’s Chief negotiator Scott Mackie. He encouraged me and Catherina and said that the deal was by no means done.
December 18, 2009: The unthinkable happens
GM announced that it was not able to resolve some issues around the Spyker ownership structure. Saab was put into liquidation and set to be closed down.
No time to waste! I did not think for one second that closing Saab would happen in reality.
But one thing was clear and that was that great efforts would be needed to turn the situation around.
I got in contact with Jonn Smith, vice president of GM. I appealed to him to allow new initiatives to Save Saab. He believed that GM would listen under certain circumstances. The now so famous “Show us the money” line was used and Jonn believed there was a possibility that new entrants for a settlement could be heard under the right circumstances.
The government’s involvement
One might say or have lots of thoughts regarding the Swedish government and how they handled the crisis within the car industry and in particular the Saab Automobile AB sales process. This alone could fill a separate article. Sure there are negative sides, but there also are very positive aspects.
The government’s two Secretaries of State, Hans Lindblad from the Ministry of Finance and Jöran Hägglund from the Ministry of Industry, were incredibly loyal and really fought for Saab Automobile’s survival.
I spent several hours on the phone during Christmas and New Year 2009-2010, many of these conversations was with Hans in order to discuss options and solutions.
The plan that did not feel right
Håkan Samuelsson had a new business plan that he wanted to see realized. It was based on a downsized Saab Automobile that would not be dependent on EIB loans.
I confronted Jan-Åke Jonsson with the new plan. Jan-Åke had strong reservations about this and believed that the impact on Saab Automobile would not be too great. I can’t really argue with Jan-Åke because, really, I feel the same and my respect for Jan-Åke makes it impossible to go with that latest plan.
I let Jan Nygren know, that personally, I would find it difficult to continue working within the framework of the “new” business plan. Jan and I think alike, and together decided to step off the newly taken path.
No time to rest
It could not hurt with more options for GM because it increased the pressure to actually sell SAAB Automobile, instead of axing the company.
Through contacts in Europe, I ended up getting in contact with Genii Capital and Gerard Lopez.
Gerard was one of the early investors in Skype, and had earned a lot of money on various IT investments. Genii had at that time also acquired Renault’s Formula I team.
It’s now the 4th of January, 2010
Gerard Lopez’s business partner, Eric Lux, came to Stockholm to talk about a joint effort.
The meeting results in that we decide to make an attempt to buy Saab Automobile AB from GM.
Genii comes in late in the process and only have a few days to familiarize themselves with the situation. Spyker is well formed and have spent big money on consultants and studies.
Both the Swedish Government and GM at this point thought it was funny to see me pop up in various guises… Whom is he representing today?
My explanation was that my objective was to save Saab and that it had been my aim all along,
The 8th of January 2010
Meeting with Genii in Stockholm. We now had an open dialogue with Bernie Ecclestone. An agreement with Bernie was achieved and he joined forces.
Together with Genii I wrote a press release, where we announced that Bernie Ecclestone had joined in our attempts to purchase SAAB Automobile.
We sent the message at 22:00 in the evening and 20 minutes later, it seemed that the whole world knew. The news instantaneously had more than 1 million hits on Google and the media response was tremendous.
GM was completely taken by surprise and Ed Whitacre amazed by the news. The pressure was really on GM to sell Saab Automobile AB.
The great interest from prospective buyers, all the great promoters like SaabsUnited, Rescue SAAB and dealers to name a few indeed played a role in GM’s final decision.
GM was willing to listen and have great respect for Ecclestone.
Genii however, misinterpreted the situation and thought they had more time than actually existed.
Gerard Lopez worked the American government to pave the way but our bid was inferior and consisted only of a few pages.
Spyker, on the other hand, came up with 21 e-mails full of interpretations and conditions. We were to say the least..distanced.
A suggestion from Jan Åke
Speaking to Jan Åke Jonsson he suggested to me that I get in contact with Victor Muller.
“Why don’t you get together?”
I asked Jan Åke: “What´s he like that Muller?” Jan Åke replied: “You are perfect for eachother.”
I was hesitant, but got Muller’s number from Jan Åke.
The liquidation process was proceeding at SAAB. The administrators were in place in the factory, the situation was becoming increasingly nervous, but GM was still serious about getting a sale to be approved.
I called Victor Muller who was in Detroit. Jan Åke was right and at once Victor and I are on the same wavelength. We plan joint actions to see to it that GM sell SAAB Automobile. The exchange of information was comprehensive, with a common goal to save SAAB. This period is characterized by a total commitment to the deal, day and night.
Our plan failed however, when my friends in Luxembourg could not reconcile on shares in ownership.
Spyker completed the purchase of Saab Automobile AB on their own on February 28, 2010
With this I thank Lars for his kind gesture to the Saab community in letting us in on his view of the sale of Saab Automobile AB.