Change afoot at Saab as CEO retires: where next?

Published: 28 March 2011


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2011 Saab articles

Saab CEO Jan Åke Jonsson announced his retirement on Friday. It was yet another small but significant news nugget from Saab – the inbox has buzzed with announcements ever since the bankrupt car maker was saved by an independent takeover on 23 February 2010.

The news that Saab's veteran CEO is stepping down makes us wonder what life's really like under the bravado of Europe's newest independent car maker. On the face of it, Saab has enjoyed a strong first year, sparked by a new confidence, a visionary leadership team and the promise of new products to build on the solid GM legacy 9-5.

But life is tough as an independent, and question marks remain over the long-term viability of Saab. Chairman and acting CEO Victor Muller will need to find a very accomplished successor to see Saab through the troubled waters ahead. Life is difficult as a low-volume player in an industry obsessed by economies of scale.

Barely a day goes by when Saab's not in the news. What's going on in Trollhattan?

It's certainly been a tumultuous first year at newly independent Saab. Just look at the announcements so far in 2011, some good, some less so:

• Saab restructures its global sales structure, GB managing director Jonathan Nash moves to Europe (1 February 2011)
• Saab starts building the 9-4X (15 February 2011)
• Saab celebrates its first anniversary of independence (23 February 2011)
• Victor Muller sells his stake in Spyker to CPP 'to concentrate on Saab' (24 February 2011)
• Saab 9-5 Sportwagon estate shown at Geneva (1 March 2011)
• Saab Phoenix concept car shown at Geneva (1 March 2011)
• Spyker investor Vladimir Antonov claims that Saab will miss its 2011 sales target of 80,000, saying 60-65k is more likely (10 March 2011)
• Saab announces deal with ZF Chassis Systems to build sub-frames and rear axles at a new site in Sweden (18 March 2011)
• Russian banker Antonov tells reporters in Lithuania that he wants to take a 30% stake in Saab - and is in advanced negotiations with the Swedish government to do so (24 March 2011)
• Saab CEO Jan Åke Jonsson announces his retirement (25 March 2011)

What are the immediate priorities at Saab?

The new boss will have a busy to-do list. Saab remains a small player and the new CEO and president will have to finesse the business plan to drive down its cost base and increase sales. It seems certain there will be more wheeler-dealing behind the scenes over the financial make-up of Saab, with a likely influx of money from eastern Europe. New shareholders will have to buy in to the vision.

The first priority will be to make sure the new 9-3 (coming in October 2012) appeals to Saabphiles and, more importantly, others who've probably defaulted to a German compact exec. The 9-5 has been a moderate success but few reviewers have been blown away by it. Jonsson and Muller have promised to increase 'the Saabishness' of the new 9-3 and that is crucial to make it stand out from some excellent competition. If the new Saab 9-3 is not distinctive, it will not achieve the cut-through required.

New management must also continue to strike strategic partnerships, such as the BMW deal which will see the 9-3 use 1.6-litre petrol turbo engines. Just like the one in the Phoenix concept car, in fact.

So should we read anything in to the CEO's retirement?

Over to Jan Åke Jonsson. 'I have been with Saab Automobile for almost my entire career of 40 years, of which almost six years as the head of Saab Automobile. The last three years have of course been very demanding and forced me to focus on one thing only – my work. Now it is time for me to also spend some time on other things that had to stand back for my duties to Saab Automobile. We have already accomplished so many things that many thought were impossible and I am convinced that Saab Automobile is on the right track towards replacing the entire product portfolio by October 2012 – when the next generation 9-3 will be launched – as well as creating a stand-alone company with a financially sound business model.'

>> Click here to see our behind-the-scenes gallery telling the story of the Saab Phoenix concept car         

        

1 March 2011 - Saab Phoenix concept (2011) at Geneva motor show

5 April 2011 - Latest Saab production halt raises concern

11 April 2011 - Saab's latest factory shutdowns 'just a blip'

16 May 2011 - Saab announces new China Joint-venture

16 June 2011 - Saab 9-5 Sportwagon (2011) prices and revised 9-5 range

24 June 2011 - Saab unable to pay wages as financing crisis deepens

27 June 2011 - Saab secures more funds as it seeks to avert collapse

28 October 2011 - Saab is sold again: two Chinese makers buy Saab

1 November - Saab 9-3: is this the new 2013 hatch

By Tim Pollard

Editorial director of CAR's digital publishing arm. Motoring news magnet

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