For 23 years, Pehr G.Gyllenhammar was the face of Volvo, serving as its CEO and/or chairman from 1971 to 1993, at a time when the company was synonymous with Sweden. Now Gyllenhammar, voted Sweden’s most admired man for nine consecutive years, is becoming a Canadian.
Pehr G. Gyllenhammar was always an unconventional business leader. He earned his degree in law but was bored by its practice. In 1965 he was recruited to the Swedish insurance company Skandia where he eventually succeeded his father Pehr Gyllen-hammar Sr as CEO. Shortly there-after, his father-in-law Gunnar Engellau, CEO of Volvo, offered him a position on the company’s top management team. At merely 36 years of age, Gyllenhammar succeeded Engellau as CEO of Volvo. One of Gyllenhammar’s first decisions was to discontinue the Volvo P1800 sports car and focus on building Volvo’s brand around safety. Gyllenhammar also championed initiatives to promote worker participation and dialogue. Today, safety, as well as informal, nonhierarchical workplaces, are some of the things that many associate with Sweden and the country’s brand. And there is no doubt that Volvo and Gyllenhammar’s leadership influenced that development.
Gyllenhammar quickly earned a reputation of being a controversial leader, making enemies among middle management while gaining the trust and admiration of the workers. As he visited the factories, Gyllenhammar found many of the workers’ tasks soulless and uninteresting, and decided to move the company away from the assembly line.
“I organized the company by product instead of by function; cars, trucks, etc.; that made the motivation much higher in the group,” he says. “The assembly line is very impersonal. I changed the production lines so that instead of having 90 seconds per task, like Charlie Chaplin, the workers could see what they were making. This improved both quality and loyalty of the workforce.”
Satisfaction among the workers rose to 90 percent and Gyllenhammar became popular among Swedes across the nation. For nine years in a row, he was voted Sweden’s most admired man.
“I was surprised to start with, and then even more surprised when it continued year after year,” says Gyllenhammar.
When asked about the reason for this widespread admiration, Gyllenhammar linked it to being transparent about his missteps.
“I made my mistakes and accepted them, and people seem to like that,” he says.
While his achievements are numerous, it is his failures that haunt the national psyche of the Swedes. In the 1970s, Norway was not yet the oil rich nation that it is today. Exploratory drilling was underway, but it was still uncertain how much black gold would be found under the sea. Gyllenhammar negotiated a trade with Norway that would see 40 percent of Volvo become Norwegian in return for access to the Norwegian oil fields. However, in the end, he failed to convince his own shareholders and the deal was voted down at Volvo’s annual shareholders’ meeting – a mistake that, according to some, cost Volvo 700 billion SEK (about 82 billion USD) in lost revenue.
About a decade later, serving now as chairman, Gyllenhammar tried to affect a merger between Volvo and French Renault, but after three years of architecting the deal, the new CEO and the top management rejected it. Gyllenhammar resigned in frustration, leaving both Volvo’s board and Sweden for a new career in the insurance industry in London.
“After I left, they sold the car business to Ford and Ford then sold it to the Chinese. They sold it piece by piece until everything was gone except the trucks and the heavy equipment. They sold it all to foreigners, America and China. The whole company was slaughtered,” he says.
Ironically, Gyllenhammar’s decision to reorganize Volvo by product, rather than by function, made the company easier to divest.
“That was never my intention,” he says. “For me the important part was to have all employees work on something that you could see what it became. It made it more meaningful for the workforce and inspired pride and efficiency. Productivity was better when people had more meaningful tasks.”
Gyllenhammar went on to have a globally successful career in insurance and financial services, working for companies such as Rothchilds and NY-based investment bank Lazard. He was intimately involved in the creation of Aviva, the largest insurance and financial services group in the UK – the result of multiple insurance company mergers. After many years in London and New York, Gyllenhammar was on a flight to London one day when he ended up seated next to industrial psychologist Lee Welton Croll, an American with Canadian roots. They fell in love and were married in 2013. It was Gyllenhammar’s third marriage and in 2016, at the age of 80, he became a father for the fifth time. Eager to avoid Trump’s America, the family immigrated to Toronto in 2019. They have spent the past year in quarantine, which has afforded Gyllenhammar much time with his wife and now five-year-old daughter Barrett.
Gyllenhammar sees few similarities between Sweden and his new homeland.
“The cultures are very different. The population in Canada is more international than almost any other country. You have people from the Far East, the Middle East, Asia, from everywhere really.” While he says he still feels Swedish at heart, Sweden has come to mean less and less over the years.
“Sweden has many advantages and very good technology, good workmanship and loyal people so in that sense I still think it’s a good country, but on the other hand I lost my appetite when they dismantled what I had built.”
Gyllenhammar will soon be eligible for Canadian citizenship and it is in Canada that the 85-year-old Swedish icon sees himself living out the rest of his days.
“I’m looking forward to becoming a Canadian citizen,” he says.
By Kajsa Norman