Exclusive interview with Hans-Olov Olsson

Hans-Olov Olsson, Volvo, Geely

Hans-Olov Olsson, Senior Advisor to the Chairman of Geely Holding Group, and ex-Chairman, Vice Chairman and CEO of Volvo Cars.

Hans-Olov Olsson has spent most of his professional career at Volvo Cars, where he held several senior positions. As a senior adviser for the investment bank Rothschild, Mr Olsson advised Geely Holding Group on the acquisition of Volvo Cars. Having spent more than six years in Asia and with good relations with Ford, he played an important role in ensuring the long-term success of Volvo Cars. Mr Olsson also has past experience as a board member of Elanders, SKF, Lindab International, Höganäs and King Carl Gustaf’s Ungt Ledarskap Trust and was also Chairman of Confederation of Technology, Vice Chairman of Confedration of Swedish Enterprise and the Chairman of the Board at Chalmers University of Technology. 



In January this year, Swedish Press met with Hans-Olov Olsson at Johanneberg Science Park in Göteborg.

SP: What is keeping you busy these days?

Hans-Olov Olsson: Since I retired from Volvo, things have changed and become more balanced, yet I remain busy with many exciting projects. My priority is now my family, and we spend more time together than we did in the past. I do have an agreement with my wife, which means I am “free to work’’ in the mornings. Since I left Volvo I have worked with Rothschild, was actively involved in facilitating the transactions between Geely and Ford, and have been on various boards (one of which is Chalmers, where we are today.)


SP: Has all the time invested in working been worth it?

Hans-Olov Olsson: Yes, I have been passionate about my work and I have had the benefit of working with and driving  important and rewarding issues. To keep a healthy work-life balance especially during 20 years living abroad, we have always gathered the family during Christmas and summers. This is important and we deliberately did this to ensure that we remain close despite the challenging work schedule.


SP: Did your children study in the US?

Hans-Olov Olsson: Yes, my daughters started school in the US at age 6 and 8 and did a few years there before completing most of their schooling in Sweden. 

One amazing fact and an example of parent-teacher collaboration in the US is that my daughters’ teachers would phone home every day to check how the children were doing. “Show and tell” was also fantastic. To be able to present something you care about in front of an audience at a young age helps to encourage the development of positive young people.


SP: In which areas do you feel Sweden significantly contributes in the world?

Hans-Olov Olsson: Technically-speaking, Sweden is leading in innovation across many fields. This can be seen in Volvo with superior thinking around safety. Environmentally-speaking, our country has been on the forefront for decades and has influenced many other countries. We are also leading in the forestry industry. Furthermore we have Ericsson influencing and innovating in telecommunications, and Tetra Pak influencing packaging and food processing. Swedes have a strong technical knowledge and thay also seem to have creativity and innovation in their DNA. I believe the rest of the world is both a little surprised and impressed by this.


SP: Where do you think this DNA of creativity comes from?

Hans-Olov Olsson: Sweden is a small country and we realized early on that the world does not end with Sweden. We had the courage to go beyond our borders a long time ago. This, I believe, inspired Swedes to seek knowledge and bring it back home. It was also both a trigger and reward to leave Sweden to avoid poverty and the rugged climate.

Sweden was a very poor country some 100-150 years ago with limited resources. In my belief, limited resources are the best fuel for innovation and creativity. I think our small size and lack of resources have been our strength and have helped us become creative and inventive. There is also a willingness to share in the success within Sweden, which has definitely helped as well.

Another issue is safety and freedom; as a young person, I was never afraid while growing up in the countryside. This helped me to be brave in business as well. 

Free education is another important aspect, which can lead to innovation. In Sweden you can become an engineer or a doctor at no cost. This means that anyone can develop themselves if they have the ambition and interest to work hard and excel. 


SP: What aspect of Swedish culture and lifestyle are you most passionate about?

Hans-Olov Olsson: I have been involved with the Tällberg Forum and Foundation with Bo Ekman as Founder. It’s grown from a small seminar series on leadership with 30 people to a forum with 400 people annually. It has been a great influence on world leaders to implement environmental thinking in their businesses or governments. The organization has now been taken over by an American, Alan Stoga, who is developing it further.


SP: How do you see Sweden’s reputation changing internationally?

Hans-Olov Olsson: Swedish industry is maintaining a good reputation. While we have not been able to maintain ownership in Sweden for our global industries, we are still doing well. One needs to be realistic and appreciate that with global requirements and competitions, Swedish resources alone are not always sufficient to maintain ownership locally. As long as we keep R&D and production in Sweden, we can maintain our skill base, and continue to innovate and be competitive.

Our political voice, however, appears to be shifting. In the past, Sweden stood for clear values. Everyone may not have agreed with the values of Olof Palme, but it was clear what they were. Today there is a big question mark around where Sweden is trying to go with immigration and integration. I think someone looking at Sweden from a distance would likely be confused as to where Sweden is going or what it stands for.


SP: How do you see the Swedish education system?

Hans-Olov Olsson: We likely do not understand the benefits of our “smallness”, and we should try to acknowledge it and make it a positive driving force in our schools. Schools are missing the point as they do not focus on identifying individual talent. Schools in Sweden need teachers with resources and tools to build individuals... not generalists.


SP: Having had the benefit of seeing and working in different countries and cultures, what do you think Sweden can learn from other cultures?

Hans-Olov Olsson: My experience from living and working in Sweden, USA, Belgium, Japan and China are that the US, Japan and China are homogenous countries, and that Europe is heterogenic, with nothing really binding us [Europe] together.

I’ve learnt to adjust to the cultures I have been in. I know if I want someone to listen to me, I must create a relationship by listening and adjusting to where I am. You need to adjust but still act from your values and from who you are. With my knowledge and values I can gain respect, and if I am also seen as listening, then trust is built and a dialogue will follow.