GOTHENBURG - For the first time since General Motors took control 10 years ago, Saab Automobile will soon have a Swede in command.
Peter Augustsson, who came up through the ranks at Volvo and Swedish supplier SKF, hopes to put some Swedish character back into the brand that has been run by two Americans and a South African since the takeover.
Augustsson has been in his post as executive vice president for a year. He's due to become Saab's president in the coming months when Robert Hendry, who is also chairman of Adam Opel AG, relinquishes the job.
After GM took over Saab in 1990, many of the top jobs were given to executives transferred from GM in Detroit or subsidiaries in Europe. But like Augustsson, several of Saab's current executives formerly worked for archrival Volvo. Most were lured to Saab by Keith Butler-Wheelhouse, the South African who was Hendry's outspoken predecessor.
Augustsson, who was hired by Hendry, will no doubt make Saab's culture feel more Swedish. He enjoyed working in Volvo's multilingual and multicultural environment. He said it was almost a microcosm of his home country. 'We Swedes are good at cultural adaptation,' said Augustsson.
He also learned something about building a prestige-car brand.
When he joined Volvo in the late 1970s, 'it was not a premium brand and we focused on product, joint ventures and new relationships with suppliers.'
Augustsson will take control at a pivotal time. Saab is emerging from four consecutive years of losses, and is preparing to revamp its product range. Its next generation of vehicles will be based on GM's global Epsilon platform. Saab engineers were involved with the development of the platform from the start.
Augustsson also learned something about product development at Volvo, where he worked from 1978-1994. He led development of the 850 - the first car to suggest a move away from Volvo's traditional boxy styling. Augustsson calls the 850 Volvo's 'breakthrough car.'
A tall man with a near-perfect grasp of English, Augustsson said one of his best qualities is his 'good communication skills. To lead a company, you have to have that ability.'
The skill is something that Augustsson attributes to his roots in a country with a long coastline and a history tied to the sea. Augustsson himself commutes to work in Trollhattan from a house by the sea that he shares with his wife and two sons.
His family were fishermen. He remembers his grandfather bringing in the catch when his family lived on the west coast of Sweden.
'I like the sea,' he said. 'I like the smell of the sea.'
He owns a 39-foot sailboat powered by, what else, a Volvo engine. 'Boat engines are different to those in cars,' says Augustsson, a little embarrassed that he mentioned the engine's maker.
Augustsson may be a Swede, but he's also a GM man.