STOCKHOLM - As CEO of Volvo Cars of North America Inc., Mark LaNeve's main aim is to boost the Swedish brand's sales in the region from the current 145,000 to about 200,000 by 2004.
But first he must oversee the move of corporate headquarters from New Jersey to California. There Volvo will have space in a complex housing Ford Motor Co.'s Premier Automotive Group.
'In Bergen County, New Jersey, we think we have half the market,' LaNeve said with intentional exaggeration. 'In California we'll look out the window, and we won't see all those Volvos. It'll be good for our competitive juices.'
But he will also be working with many new faces. He expects about half of the 150 headquarters staff members whose jobs are being moved to quit or take other company positions rather than accept a transfer across the continent.
Despite such distractions, LaNeve is focused on Volvo's product offerings, the obvious key to reaching its ambitious sales goals.
'We've got some things going on, but the competition is tough,' he said.
In an organization known for cool, urbane executives with elegant Scandinavian accents, LaNeve stands out.
LaNeve, 41, is the fast-moving son of a Pennsylvania steelworker. He spent 16 years at General Motors in marketing and brand management. He joined Volvo in 1997 and took over the top job at its North American sales and marketing company in the summer.
He is not afraid of setting highly ambitious goals for himself: 'Our quest is to be one of the elite premium brands,' he says.
Volvo dealers who were interviewed are pleased in general that an American familiar with the market is in charge, the first since Joe Nicolato left in 1992. And they are optimistic about LaNeve in particular.
'He's very approachable, a good listener. He's a guy that relates well to retailers. He's more like one of the guys, unpretentious,' said Ed Stillman, president of Stillman Volvo of West Chester, Pennsylvania.
Stillman, a former chairman of the Volvo dealers' council and a former member of the company-dealer executive committee that replaced the council, said his main concern is LaNeve's 'limited experience at this level. Is he up to the task?'
Jim Speck, president of Volvo of Orange County in Southern California and another former executive committee member, said of LaNeve: 'He's young, aggressive, very accessible. I don't see any negatives.'
But, he added, LaNeve is going to need the high energy he exhibits.
LaNeve, for his part, is enthusiastic about the prospects for Volvo's current and future products in the USA.
He said the new sporty S60 sedan will appeal to owners of competing luxury cars, current Volvo owners and people eager to move up from the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord.
While most automotive executives don't like to talk about future product plans, LaNeve was clear on these points:
Volvo will be producing an all-activity vehicle on its large-car platform in about two years, but it may be just one in a coming string of Cross Country-style vehicles. They may or may not all carry the Cross Country name, used now on the V70 all-wheel-drive station wagon.
A truck-based sport-utility has been ruled out, but Volvo may choose to adapt a Ford V-8 for its own use.
There likely will be a successor to the C70 convertible and coupe, the first 'curvy' Volvo, whose unveiling four years ago signaled that something different was happening at the Swedish maker of boxy, boring cars. It could be more upscale, but at $47,000, the current model's price in the USA, 'the air is already pretty thin,' he said.
Also possible is a three-door car, but don't call it a hatchback.
While Volvo will gradually introduce more all-wheel-drive vehicles, its emphasis will continue to be on front-wheel drive, and that will be a competitive advantage in the luxury market.
'I want Cadillac to go to rear-wheel drive. We are going to pick up that business,' he said, predicting a Volvo gain of 20,000 to 30,000 sales.
At GM, LaNeve was one of the original brand managers. He handled Pontiac Bonneville from 1995 to 1997, but he said he had to come to Volvo to understand what Ron Zarrella, president of GM North America, was trying to do with brand management.
'He wanted to create 37 Volvos,' LaNeve joked. At Volvo the brand concept is 'not in a binder. It's intuitive.'