Saturday, March 17, 2007

They Wanted a Non-American for This Job

Bo I. Andersson grew up in Falkenberg, a tiny coastal town south of Gothenburg on Sweden’s west coast. After completing his mandatory military service, he set out to become an officer and studied at the Borensberg military college. But in 1987, he left the army to become a buyer at Saab Automobile. Three years later, he was Saab’s top purchasing manager, but his mother was worried. Wasn’t there any better company to work for than one that lost several million dollars a day?

The year when he became Saab’s buyer-in chief, 1990, was the year that General Motors bought 50 percent of the company. His new boss, Saab’s first American CEO, David J. Herman, asked Andersson what he wanted to do next, to which he replied, “Work in the United States. ”But Herman said that he didn’t want to send any Europeans to the U.S: ”It’s too damn political!” In 1992 Herman left Saab to become CEO of Adam Opel in Germany and asked Andersson to follow. But Andersson was in the middle of the Saab 900 launch and had to decline. In 1993 Herman called from Germany and said that it was safe to go to the U.S. now that the company’s global purchasing manager from Spain, Jose Ignacio Lopez de Arriortua, was out.

Andersson rushed to America and became head of GM’s Worldwide Purchasing Electrical group, reporting to Lopez’s successor, Richard Wagoner, Jr., who 10 years later became CEO. The young, ambitious Swede moved up the hierarchy quickly, joining GM’s corporate board in 2001 (after a 1997–98 stint in Europe and a crash course in management at Harvard Business School). He then became second in command for purchasing, the supply chain and logistics, and the only non-American among the 15 members of the board.

Has anything you brought from Sweden been helpful in your career at GM?

“My best takeaway is that in a small company you deal with the same issues as in a large company, but you don’t have the resources. I had 150 people when I ran purchasing at Saab in 1990, and today I have 2,500, and maybe 5,000 globally.

“I have worked in all functions, and understand finance, engineering, manufacturing, public relations, and legal, because in a small company, you have to deal with them all.”

Some of these huge American companies can be very bureaucratic.

“Yes, exactly! And you may sub-optimize. But at the same time, we don’t get enough recognition for the fact that we’re doing extremely well in the emerging markets, where we don’t have the same bureaucracy. China is a great example, as is Russia, the Middle East, Mexico and Brazil. Here the big and heavy GM is doing better than anybody else, because it is working with small groups of people who know that they have to move fast. There is no legacy there. In the U.S. we’re a 99-year-old company carrying a load. We have 1.1 million retirees in the U.S. alone, while Toyota has 100.”

You’re rumored to be on track to become the next CEO….

“Next question….No, I don’t think that will happen, but somebody floated my name. Do I think that it’s going to happen? Absolutely not.”

How is it to work in the U.S.? You have your Swedish upbringing and attitudes.

“I try to keep the best of both. I love the U.S., or else I wouldn’t be here. It’s a great country with great opportunities. I don’t have a fraternity network, but what I bring with me is my discipline and the fact that I’m not afraid of anything. Another strength is that it’s easier for me to deal with Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Germans, Brazilians, or Mexicans. They see me as neutral. I think I have a certain advantage in China, Japan, and Korea over my American peers. I also have the benefit of speaking several languages, but the biggest benefit might be that I understand history.

“The GM board wanted a non-American on this job. That was clearly spelled out, and it pissed some people off,” says a Swede who seems to have left the infamous Law of Jante behind.

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