Ever since the receivers took over the control at Saab quietness ruled the news. There were those regular press conferences but most questions were only answered very vaguely if at all. Most things happened behind closed doors, which was very strange for us after the very public Spyker era. I don’t want to judge the latter here but I do have to admit that I like that calm style. There are certain things in business that do not belong into the public and the talks with potential investors certainly are such.
This silence was broken a few times by Youngman who gave some interviews that were merely intended to polish up their image. In the end, at least for me, they left more questions than answers. I do not see them as a good owner for Saab as they may own a few mines and be a big bus manufacturer but their car subsidiary is rather small and since they lack a joint-venture with a big automotive player it is in danger to be eaten up by the threatening consolidation within the chinese automotive landscape.
Even at first look Mahindra seem to be in a totally different league. They are a modern conglomerate consisting of many sectors: automotive, agricultural, aero, defense technologies, IT-services to name but only a few. If you wanted to compare them you’d have to look at companies like Samsung or of course Tata.
But as we learned under GM sheer size of a parent does not guarantee success and growth for a brand like Saab. But the more I dig in it I can see what Mahindra stands for and why they became not only my personal favourite, but also the one of people at Saab and among the receivers.
Let’s start with one of the more obvious things. Saab is still more than an empty shell. Its engineers have developed some very interesting environmental technology like the TTID engine and ePower, but also with regards to vehicle stability, quality and longlivety . All of these can be pretty valuable for Mahindra – with their own cars like the XUV5OO. If they want to get into the European market, especially with their SUVs they need environmentally friendly engines and electric technology. As we already learned the TTiD engine is not subject to GM’s approval so it would be not that hard to adapt it for use in other vehicles, maybe even in the Ssangyong range. And that would indeed satisfy the ever growing local market, with a rapidly growing number of consumers wanting European styled vehicles and technology underpinnings. European technology is hot in India.
Speaking of green technology – this is a main issue in India. The government is putting a lot of effort in establishing environmentally friendly technologies. Of course they have a long way to go but according to the WorldBank experts India has been among the countries who made the biggest progress regarding environmental issues between 1995 and 2010. Despite the fact that the big difference in development of the regions does not make it easy they are much more seriously focused on those issues than some countries in the western world. Not only did the use of for instance plastic carrier bags got prohibited, also most sales of lightbulbs got crushed. India’s crowded streets were cleaned up at an alarmingly fast pace, investing heavily in cleaning up engine pollutants. There is a reason that CNG is one of the most used mobility fuels. The quality of the Indian design and technology was indeed over the last 15 years completely turned around.
Apart from the field of technology it’s worth to take a look at the Indian mindset and company culture. As we could see throughout the process Indian companies tend to act very quietly and behind closed doors. I can only remember a single interview with a board member of Mahindra where they publically stated their interest in Saab. They rather focus on the issue itself, which can be a bit unsatisfying if you are as eager as we are to get news but looking at the greater goal also much more efficient.
When I talked to people who worked with Indians they all described them as a bit understated, hard working and reliable. Once they are hooked to a goal they won’t leave until they moved all mountains that are in the way. Even if such a mountain is called GM. They are a large country with different cultures amalgamated into one.
As I already stated earlier Saab can be seen as a logical addition to the automotive portfolio of the Mahindra Group. While they already are strong in the field of rough off road cars, have just launched a contemporary SUV and acquired Ssangyong with a portfolio that is mostly adapted to the Asian market Saab could complete this with cars made for the European and North American customers. Mahindra already tried to enter those markets but have not yet been rewarded with the desired success.
Also the company philosophy is in a way similar to the one at Saab. They are always looking for the best solutions even if they require out of the box thinking. Some of those values that were not wanted under GM could live up again under Indian leadership. Even more as Saab could be a technology leader in certain fields within Mahindra’s automotive sector.
Rest assured that Mahindra realize the full potential of Saab and really want to get the company back on it’s feet. But as much as the Indian mindset fits into what Saab stands for it is also clear that mistakes were made within the Saab. If Mahindra get to buy Saab they will take a close look at every bit of the structure to implement improvements. In my view to launch project Cheetah was very important, albeit it came two years too late. Many processes from the GM era remained under Spyker but made no sense within an independent Saab. All those points have to be found and I am pretty sure that this will be one of the first things that happen at Saab 2.0 before there is even a thought about turning on the production line.
It may require some re-thinking within the remaining team at Saab. In a way the Saab engineers refused to act to GM’s guidelines several times. A good example here is the current 9-3, that was developed on a Vectra base but had not much in common with the Opel base in the end. They were extremely fond of doing it their own way. Within the Mahindra group they’d have to cultivate the culture of cooperation that slowly started under Spyker even more. They have to understand that there is a new, big parent that wants them to prosper but also gives some rules. And there is no other option if this shall succeed. After all the moment for such a rigid change could not be better than with this complete start from zero. Once a proper management team is in place and the Saab found a direction we may see a similar hands-off leadership as Tata does it with JLR.
Even among us within the Saab community a bit of rethinking may be needed. Those Spyker years built up a dream of a small car manufacturer, totally independent of big players. A relief after being mistreated by evil global giant GM for so long. But we have to face reality, this dream was a bit too ambitious to come true. Nevertheless Mahindra could be the option that gives a proper financial background and big ressources while still retaining the core values we like so much about Saab. A few things may change – bigger product portfolio and thus Saabs won’t be as rare as they are today but I could easily live with that.
As a reward there will even be a place for us in the future story of Saab. Indians value their family as their biggest asset and what else than the Saab family are we…?