Amid Saab rebirth, chief feels it's time to step down

Rick Kranz is product editor for Automotive News

While his announcement probably shocked dealers, Saab CEO Jan Ake Jonsson has been thinking about retirement for some time.

"I started the dialogue with Victor at the end of October last year," Jonsson said in an e-mail today.

"I have now been in the business for 40 years, almost all time associated with Saab. I turn 60 later this year," he continued.

"The last six years as the head of Saab has been extremely demanding and I have focused all my time on my job. Now I want to focus on other things that have had to stand back due to my work, in particular my family."

Saab Automobile AG announced his retirement today, along with its intention to search for Jonsson's successor.

Jonsson and Saab Chairman Victor Muller have been the face of Saab since its separation from General Motors in February 2010. Jonsson is rarely seen without Victor, and vice versa.

They hit the road last year to dispel the notion that Saab went out of business as the result of GM's bankruptcy -- country after country, interview after interview. From conversations with both, the picture painted was that no event was too small to spread the word that Saab was in business. It seemed like a grueling pace.

Last year, for example, Jonsson was invited by businessmen in a small Swedish town to explain what was taking place at Saab. He traveled there, gave a speech, answered questions, headed home.

At the same time Jonsson and Muller were trying to restart the Swedish automaker -- lock in a supply base, ramp up production after being shut down for nearly two months and recreate a distribution network.

Meanwhile, Saab:

  • launched production in Sweden of the redesigned 9-5;
  • finished development work on the 9-5 wagon;
  • and completed development of the 9-4X crossover, which is being assembled at a GM plant in Mexico.

At the same time, work began on the redesign of the 9-3, Saab's most important, highest-volume vehicle. Early design work -- viewed as too conservative -- was discarded, and a new head of design was hired last year to create a new bold styling direction.

The 9-3 will represent Saab's new look. Sales begin late in 2012. Styling cues will be adopted for future vehicles. This is the car that will signal Saab's reinvention, potentially a historic moment for the Swedish automaker.

Asked about the timing of his retirement -- about why he plans to retire May 19 rather than stay around for the 9-3's world debut -- Jonsson made it clear it is time to move on.

"Well, of course, that is an exciting event but then there will be another event, and after that another one, etc.

"At one point you need to make up your mind, and the time is now for me."

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