One day after he joined the board of Volvo from Ford last October, Stephen Odell, president and chief executive of Volvo, sacked 25 percent of the workforce.
Everyone, even the unions, knew it was coming – and necessary – because demand for Volvos was on the floor, especially in the US where they usually sell best. The company’s costs were simply too high for survival.
Odell could have hidden behind his newness in the job, but he faced the cameras and gave it to them straight, the way he has always done in a varied career full of similarly tough calls. “The US market collapsed as I arrived,” he says. “I don’t think it was due to me. But it was still reassuring to get a call from Alan Mulally, my chief at Ford, reminding me that I wasn’t the problem, but part of the solution.”
Then came more sticky medicine, pay cuts for management as well as daily-paid, and Volvo posted a stonking $255 million first quarter loss – an amount, Odell archly points out, which is only one-seventh of Mercedes' reverse for the same period. Ten months in, Odell has come to be admired in Sweden for his straightforwardness, his simplification of the management structure, and his determination to conquer.
Most people reckon he's the right leader. “Of course it’s still tough,” he says, “but the likelihood is we’ll recover. We have good product in the pipeline: revisions to C30 and C70 at the Frankfurt next month, and further developments with electric cars. We’ve got new S60 and V70 models to launch next year, and before that, we’ve got a communications project I'm really proud of – it's a bit like Mazda’s “zoom-zoom” thing - aimed at Volvo cool, not cold." Odell, who is leaving the minutiae of the Volvo sale to others while he runs the company, almost relishes the battles ahead. Right now, he's arm-wrestling the Flanders government over loan funds it has promised to but not paid (sound familiar?).
He admits Volvo's sales for 2009 will struggle to beat 320,000 units, disastrously short of 2007’s booming 470,000, well behind ‘08’s 370,000 and barely half the 600,000 previous CEOs have publicised as realistic.
Even in the trenches, with his tin hat on, Odell doesn’t completely dismiss such pie-in-the-sky figures. “In a recovered market, around 2012, our sales ought to be usefully north of 400,000,” he predicts. “But if we could eventually get to 600,000 at the right margins, that would be fantastic.”