Håkan Samuelsson: outgoing Volvo boss and electric car pioneer | Automobile industry

Håkan Samuelsson was a relatively late convert to electric cars. He took over as head of Volvo in 2012, but it wasn’t until three or four years later that he realized he had to oversee the biggest change in the company’s history: ending the use of fossil fuels.

Since then, Volvo has pledged to stop making petrol or diesel cars after 2030. This will be the fastest phase-out of any mainstream carmaker of equivalent size, and Volvo has put sustainability at the heart of its image. brand.

Samuelsson was persuaded by “the kind of absolute engineering logic,” he tells the Observer via video call from a sparsely furnished office at Volvo’s Gothenburg headquarters. Batteries are the most efficient way to turn solar or wind energy into energy to turn the wheels of a car. But it was Tesla


resume

Age 71

Family Two adult children.

Education Studied mechanical engineering at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, which was “very classy”.

Pay £19.3m in 2020.

Last holidays At home north of Barcelona in Spain.

Best advice ever given “Don’t have this career planning; do something you really enjoy doing, because then you will do it well.

Biggest Career Mistake “That list would be so long it would take up a whole section of your newspaper,” he says, before pointing out two: not being “diplomatic” enough to bid on Scania while running Man Trucks; and not realizing earlier that electric car makers would need their own battery supplies.

Word he abuses “It goes without saying – I use it often and maybe it’s not so obvious to others.”

how he relaxes Read history and economics books, including those by Adam Smith The Wealth of Nations recently doing DIY at home and going to the dump.


founder Elon Musk, automotive disruptor par excellence, who really put the pressure on.

“You have to admit Tesla inspired us all, showing that, wow, it can be done in a premium car,” says Samuelsson. “The guys in California shone the spotlight on electrification, and there were people saying it wouldn’t work and they would go broke. But little by little it came, ‘no, it works’ , and you have tested these cars and there is nothing wrong with them. They are really better than a combustion car: quiet and with super acceleration.

It would be, he adds, “stupid to try to resist” the push towards all-electric. And because Volvo’s electric cars will be cheaper to manufacture than petrol or diesel by 2025, companies will have no reason to make internal combustion engines after that.

Putting Volvo on the electric path, via a £13billion IPO on the Stockholm stock exchange last October, proved to be the 71-year-old’s last move as CEO then that he is heading towards a near-retirement that could have come a decade earlier.

Samuelsson took an automaker that in 2012 was selling about 400,000 cars a year and was roughly breaking even to post profits and revenue on sales of just under 700,000 in 2021.

One of his top priorities when he arrived was to gain full control of the manufacturing platform for each car rather than relying on other automakers – “no Ford Mondeos with any other bodywork”. He also ordered a design overhaul to make the Volvos “less boxy and boring”.

Another key objective was the search for better profitability. “If you work in a company that’s losing money, it destroys all the energy,” he says. “You need profits to boost morale. So I said, no, we have to turn around faster. So we never lost any money.

The Volvos may have gotten less square on his watch, but they’ve also gotten bigger. The streets of many Western cities – where off-road capability is hardly essential – are increasingly occupied by sports utility vehicles (SUVs) which take up space and consume more fuel. In 2019, the International Energy Agency found in 2019 that SUVs were the second biggest cause of global carbon emissions increase between 2010 and 2018.

Samuelsson, whose English maintains a steady, unhurried pace throughout the conversation, doesn’t skip a beat when asked about his role in this case: “You also have to be profitable to have money for investments,” he said. Customers freely chose to opt for bigger cars, so it was the best way to afford the gigantic expenses needed to develop electric technology.

However, the changes did not go smoothly. In 2020, shortly before the pandemic hit, Samuelsson was tasked by Volvo’s Chinese owner Geely with drafting merger plans with Geely Automobile that would have created a global Chinese automaker with Britain’s Lotus Cars. A year later, Geely has instead been content to list its automakers separately and share electric vehicle technology and software.

Samuelsson says Geely owner Li Shufu, also known as Eric, has “never micromanaged” or pressured Volvo to meet its quarterly targets, but there is no doubt that the Li’s influence was behind a push that saw Volvo’s annual sales in China jump from around 1,000 to 170,000 during his time there. He acknowledges that Li was a “door opener”.

Samuelsson grew up south of Stockholm, the son of a workshop manager, so it’s perhaps no surprise that he ended up studying mechanical engineering. He points out that in the 1970s, automotive manufacturing was the most glamorous industry: “At that time, mechanical engineering was more or less what software or digital development is today. It was cars and motorcycles and carburetors. It was high tech.

An internship at Swedish truck manufacturer Scania marked the start of a life in the automotive industry. He spent 20 years manufacturing trucks, notably in Argentina and Brazil, before being recruited to join the German truck and diesel engine manufacturer MAN Group. (Samuelsson also sold large parts of the sprawling MAN conglomerate, including a declining business making newspaper printing presses.)

Samuelsson handed the reins of Volvo to Jim Rowan, former chief executive of Britain’s Dyson, the vacuum cleaner maker that also had plans – now shelved – to build an electric car.

In the short term, he will be heading to Tel Aviv for some time off in the spring, but the plan is to continue working in the industry, so his retirement will not be a “sit and play golf” retirement. (He might find time to refurbish his vintage Volvo P1800 – the car driven by a pre-James Bond Roger Moore in The Sainta spy series that aired during Samuelsson’s childhood.)

One of the main tasks will be to chair the board of directors of Polestar, the electric vehicle company created by Volvo. He is also in discussion on other automotive board positions, but will not be pursued further.

Being a chief executive of a big company comes with handsome rewards – Samuelsson was paid £19m in 2020 – but he doesn’t shy away when asked about the costs of such a powerful career.

“You always lose something,” he says. “I think you should see it more as a job that you’re passionate about and happy to have it as a total hobby.

As for the personal costs of the job, he admits he “lost a lot of other things” and “probably should have spent more time with my kids and my family as well. They say I traveled a lot and they never saw me when they were little. You feel a little bad hearing that.

“I didn’t realize it when it happened, but I probably neglected my family a bit. But in life, you can’t do everything. So I don’t regret having taken so long as CEO. It was still worth it. »

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