Dynamic Volvo chief has a taste for drama and controlled chaos
A devotee of the favored sports of the leisured classes - sailing and tennis - Pehr Gyllenhammar once claimed never to have had a serious thought until he was 28 years old.Skip to next paragraph
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At 36 he became chief executive of his father-in-law's company, the Volvo Group, Sweden's largest industrial conglomerate.
Although he cut a dashing figure, many fellow businessmen still didn't take his ideas too seriously.
Nevertheless, Mr. Gyllenhammar decided early on to attack what he saw as boredom and anonymity in factory work. He built a car factory without an assembly line, rejigged the automaking technology around electronic carts, and invited factory workers to help choose the company's board of directors.
Now, after 13 years at Volvo's helm, Gyllenhammar still cuts a dashing figure in world business, and some of his once-eccentric innovations are looking like worldwide trends.
In a time when the captains of industry are mostly organization men unknown to the public, there are still industrialists who appeal to the popular imagination. Americans have Lee Iacocca; Swedes have Pehr Gyllenhammar. (That's Pare YULE-en-hommer.)
Under Gyllenhammar's command, Volvo weathered the turbulent recent years for the auto industry and has emerged more robust than ever. The company now has a broad enough industrial base, in Gyllenhammar's view, to carry it through most economic storms.
Along the way, Gyllenhammar has picked up a reputation for innovation and bold international deals.
A trim, cosmopolitan fellow with the weathered face of a yachtsman, and a baritone voice with British tones to his Swedish accent, Gyllenhammar travels with his tennis racket - not least to preside over the Volvo Masters tennis tournament each January.
In a recent conversation here, he did not hesitate to point out how Western industry, especially the auto industry, has mistreated its workers. Nor is he reticent about what Volvo is still doing wrong. But the current vogue among his fellow industrialists for aping Japanese management styles is a response he calls naive.
The redoubtable Gyllenhammar has an apparent taste for controlled chaos, drama, spontaneous action, and the other forms the dynamic element of working life takes. His company - despite its size and scope - has not become a sluggish bureaucracy, he says. Rather it has kept that climate where a good idea can get through.
As Gyllenhammar sees it, there is a tension in Volvo between two contradictory elements:
* Unswerving loyalty to basic objectives, which ensure the continuity that uphold quality.
* Constant controversy within the company. This is the unsettling force for innovation.
The tension is at the heart of Volvo's dynamism, he explains.
''Sometimes it's hard for our own people within the company to understand this,'' he adds. The faithful upholders of Volvo quality ''have to do everything today the same way they did yesterday.''
The classic case is the Kalmar plant, a factory Volvo opened in 1974 without assembly lines. Small teams of employees worked on cars that were maneuvered for them on self-propelled carriers. Heavy work was eliminated. Noise was cut to the point that workers could converse normally while they labored. The teams were flexible so workers could change tasks periodically and set their own pace.
At the time, Gyllenhammar says, his competitors viewed the Kalmar factory, with upturned noses, as an ''exotic little venture.'' Inside the company, the new plant was ''big drama.''
''It had to be rejected by all those who defend stability, including my own colleagues in top management.''
Now Kalmar is the most efficient plant, by the Swedish krona spent and by the hour worked, of any Volvo plant in any industrialized country. It is also the most adaptable to new standards and conditions.