The CAR inquisition: an interview with Volvo CEO Hakan Samuelsson

Published: 08 September 2016

► CAR interviews Volvo CEO and President
► Hakan Samuelsson envisages a transformed Volvo
► Wants Volvo to be a premium automotive company

Ever fancied being CEO of a car company? Me neither. The pressure is surely unbearable, the responsibility enough to make fret-free sleep a thing of the past. But Samuelsson makes the job look pretty straightforward, fun even. The burden of ensuring the survival and success of the much-loved Swedish car maker is almost invisible in the man’s easy chuckles and languid posture.

Everything’s easy when things are going well though, right? And at Volvo things are going well. November 2015 was the best sales month in the company’s 88-year history. It built half a million cars last year, another Volvo record.

The XC90, its talismanic SUV, is one of the more decorated cars on sale. There are, in Samuelsson’s words, ‘a lot of positive indicators right now on the dashboard’. The man and role appear a perfect fit, and yet when Samuelsson took the position – in late 2012 – it wasn’t the realisation of some long-held ambition. 

‘It was very stimulating being part of the board here since the re-start in 2011,’ says Samuelsson. ‘Becoming chief executive was not something I had planned but I don’t regret the move. You should continue learning all your life and I’ve learned that real activity is more stimulating than sitting and talking on boards! And of course as a Swede, contributing at Volvo is especially good.’

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Lesser men might have seen this post-Ford, Geely-funded reboot as a quite terrifying challenge but Samuelsson insists he had no doubts, and that mapping Volvo’s renaissance was pretty straightforward. For him it was obvious – the company’s traditional values would point the way ahead.

‘The brand had certainly not been strengthened by the Ford years,’ says Samuelsson. ‘Volvo had been in a resting mode. But it had huge potential. There was a risk of doing things the wrong way, like disregarding safety because now everyone has that, but that would have been absolutely wrong. We’re proud of our heritage and we’re building on it.

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‘Of course it’s not just tradition – you have to develop. Safety is more than seatbelts and airbags now. It’s collision avoidance, it’s high-tech. It’s a very exciting area, all the way to autonomous driving. And we should do that. You build on your strengths. Another for us is design. We should be the one building modern Scandinavian design. That’s our home turf. Why should we let the Germans do that?

‘We didn’t just come in, look at the figures and start talking about return on investment. We went back to fundamentals. What are we trying to achieve, to deliver? The really good premiums are clear on that. Audi has progress through technology. BMW is about dynamic driving pleasure. You need a clear brand promise. If you haven’t decided that, you are guaranteed not to deliver it, and guaranteed not to succeed. Even when you have decided, it is still challenging…

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‘We are the premium alternative,’ explains Samuelsson. ‘Our brand is about design to be proud of and about responsibility, both in terms of safety and the environment. Not everybody wants a big engine with a lot of horsepower. For some that is not premium, and those are our customers. If you deliver a copy you will never be able to ask a high price. How high can we go? The first ambition is to catch up.

‘Beyond that we have no limit. With the S90 we have closed the gap to the Mercedes E-class but it will take some years to convince people. I think the first car is maybe easier to sell – the really difficult one is when they come back. Will they buy another one? That answer is critical in knowing that you have convinced your customer that you are premium. This will take some years. Realistically it’s 2020, with all the new cars rolled out.’

Samuelsson is quick to point out that he hasn’t plotted this course or forged Volvo’s modern identity alone. ‘There is a board, appointed by the owner, but they’re not just representatives of the owners. There are experienced professionals also. There is Tom Johnstone, former CEO of SKF. Mikael Olsson, ex-CEO from IKEA is now our vice-chairman: a lot of knowledge about retailing and branding. Carl-Peter Forster, ex head of GM Europe: a car guy.

‘These are internationally experienced professionals. And that’s really how the company is steered. There is no micro-management from Geely about the details. Of course we have very stimulating discussions with our owners but they understand Volvo as a premium European car maker and they don’t want to change it into anything else.’

In recent years Volvo’s weathered a few storms, suffered a couple of less than successful partnerships, but under Samuelsson its resilience and potential are becoming clear – its heritage a steadying hand in an age of unprecedented change. ‘Autonomous driving is absolutely right for us, with our commitment to safety. Again the brand will help. It’s a big advantage having the Volvo Iron Mark on the front of the car. In the future it will give credibility when you’re reading your emails at 80mph.’

CAR's curveballs: six questions only we would ask…

Tell us about your first car?

‘My first car was a Volkswagen Beetle, model year 1958, black. I even remember the price – it cost 500 krona. I was 18 with a fresh licence. In those days a car was something really attractive – at last you could move around in a totally different way. It was a very positive experience, despite the very, very bad heating. The defroster was almost non-existent so you had to heat up the windscreen by hand.’

What is your proudest achievement?

‘Being a part of revitalising Volvo, which we are in the midst of doing. That would come pretty high on the list. It’s a very traditional Swedish company that had not been successful for 20 years. Now I am part of a revival: a record year last year, more than half a million cars for the first time in our history.’

Best thing you’ve ever done in a car?

‘[Laughs]. It has to be a serious answer. I’m proud of the small details that I’ve been a part of on our new cars, like the ‘Since 1959’ logos on the seatbelt buckles. A small thing but they were my idea.’

Supercar or classic?

‘Supercar I would say. In the Volvo sphere the V60 Polestar is one of the most exciting cars I’ve driven in many years. Good performance, good sound – it really brings something quite different out of a Volvo. We are looking at the other performance options with the Polestar brand; work is underway.’ 

Company curveball… What is the link between Volvo and West Bromwich?

‘[Short pause]. Got it. It’s the bodies for the P1800. Jensen made them for some of those cars. They built the car for Roger Moore.’

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By Ben Miller

The editor of CAR magazine, story-teller, average wheel count of three