One reason that Hakan Samuelsson is the longest-serving CEO at Volvo Cars since its creation in 1978 is his knack for making the right moves at the right time.
"He has this super distinct eye to catch important trends," Volvo Chief Product Officer Henrik Green told me on Tuesday. "Hakan is an amazing leader, especially during a time of transformation like we have been in."
Here are a few examples:
- He pushed to create the Care by Volvo subscription scheme that has introduced the brand to a much younger customer.
- He emphasized forming partnerships with key technology players, which has led to fruitful collaborations with Google, Nvidia, lidar maker Luminar and battery cell maker Northvolt, to name a few.
- The longtime fan of e-commerce used the worst months of the pandemic in 2020 to take the automaker's online retailing skills to a whole new level, resulting in a quicker-than-expected post-lockdown rebound.
- He ditched six-cylinder engines in favor of four-cylinder units at a time when premium rivals were waging a horsepower war.
- He pushed Volvo away from diesel- and gasoline-powered cars in favor of electrified drivetrains in 2017.
- That same year he made Polestar a global stand-alone brand for high-performance electrified models and he promoted his design boss, Thomas Ingenlath, to CEO. His faith has been rewarded as Ingenlath is poised to take Polestar public this year in a deal with an enterprise value of $20 billion.
Another executive whose career has taken off since Samuelsson's arrival is Green. He has been promoted six times in the last eight years. His previous posts include chief technology officer and head of R&D.
"Typically, your career goes well when you when have a good working relationship with your boss," Green said just minutes after the automaker announced that Samuelsson would step down on March 21. It was a lucky break for me to have a scheduled interview with Green that coincided with the release of the news.
Green is not alone in his high regard for Samuelsson. Last year, the Volvo boss was called one of the most visionary CEOs in the automotive industry by the head of a leading technology supplier.
The CEO, who declined to be named because his company works with most automakers and he did not want to appear to be playing favorites, praised Samuelsson's "fresh mind" and his ability to learn "so deeply and so quickly."
"He recognizes that the automotive industry needs to become a technology industry not a machinery industry," the executive added.
When Samuelsson leaves, his run at the top will have lasted nine years and five months.
The automaker came within 6,760 vehicle sales in 2021 of setting a new record for the seventh time in the last eight years. Volvo has also generated solid profits on his watch.
Samuelsson also guided Volvo through its recent IPO, helping the company generate billions of fresh euros that his successor, Jim Rowan, will get to put toward making Volvo an electric-only brand by 2030.
What a dramatic contrast to October 2012, when Samuelsson took over a struggling company where the previous five CEOs had lasted an average of 3.4 years.
Few could have predicted that Samuelsson, who spent most of his four-decade-long automotive career at truck makers Scania and MAN, would have so much success leading a premium automaker between the ages of 61 and 71, which is how old he will be when he steps down.
BMW normally sends its CEOs into retirement at age 60.
Time will tell whether Rowan, 56, also has a gift for identifying and capitalizing on key trends at the right moment. His experiences at Dyson and Blackberry might be just what Volvo needs as the industry heads into the era of the software-defined car.
But, Volvo could be faced with some high-level upheaval considering that members of its executive management team such as Green, 48; chief financial officer Bjorn Annwall, 46; head of Americas Anders Gustafsson, 53; and engineering chief Javier Varela, 57; were all passed over for the top job.