Volvo's new CEO Samuelsson learning the ropes

Richard Johnson is managing editor of Automotive NewsRichard Johnson is managing editor of Automotive News
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DETROIT -- Hakan Samuelsson, the new Volvo CEO, was not at all what I expected when he turned up for his first Detroit auto show.

He looked more like Volvo's chief designer --tieless, sport jacket, casual pants, easygoing manner.

Four months into his new job, the 61-year-old Swede asked as many questions as he answered.

He was on Volvo's board for two years before replacing Stefan Jacoby as CEO, but he's still learning.

"It's easier to just give great advice," he says with a smile.

It astounds Samuelsson that a decade or so ago Volvo outsold BMW. Mercedes-Benz and Audi in the United States.

What happened?

"I think maybe the beancounters got too much control," he said, an apparent reference to Volvo's days as a Ford subsidiary.

Samuelsson's last job was CEO of the German truckmaker MAN. He came up through the ranks of Sweden's Scania as a factory and purchasing specialist.

"I'm not really a car guy," he says.

Still, he has a pretty good feel of the Volvo brand. He'd kind of like to bring a station wagon, once a Volvo staple, back into the fold. And while he thinks a crossover below the XC60 is a pretty solid idea, he's not in favor of a big luxury sedan -- said to be top of mind at Geely, Volvo's Chinese owner.

What's Samuelson's shorthand for the brand?

"Safety, styling and functionality," he says.

He'd like to hit the reset button on all three.

"Volvo has always been known for functionality," he says.

Mercedes, BMW and Audi have had issues with ease-of-use on its center stack, so Samuelson sees an opportunity for Volvo to make up ground against its German rivals.

"We're not going to beat them with luxury cars," he says.

Samuelsson is not keen on a North American factory for Volvo just now, but would like to source more dollar-denominated components. And he says cooperating with another automaker on small-car production sounds great "until you get down to the nitty gritty of the negotiations." So despite all the rumors you've heard don't look for action on that front.

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