Dressed in a survival suit on the deck of an Antarctic expedition ship, Katarina Fjording stood against 30 mph winds, anchored to the vessel by a cord around her waist.
It was the middle of the night, and she was trying to get reception on the captain's phone to talk to her Volvo Cars colleagues back in Gothenburg, Sweden, who were weathering a storm of their own: the economic downturn buffeting the auto industry in 2008.
Fjording, an expert sailor with a deep interest in marine biology, had just returned to Volvo after a stint at Ford Motor Co., where she helped launch the D3 full-size car platform, and was in the middle of one of her long-awaited outdoor excursions. Volvo was still under Ford ownership, and would be until 2010, and was facing the same problems as other automakers: how to survive when customers had stopped buying cars.
Even though she was thousands of miles away in another hemisphere, Fjording did her best stay connected to decisions that could drastically change her employees' and co-workers' lives.
"It was quite emotional," she said. "You're holding people's future in your hands."
Fjording, 48, Volvo's vice president of purchasing and manufacturing, is leading the construction of the automaker's first U.S. plant, in Ridgeville, S.C., about 40 miles northwest of Charleston. She shares a hometown with Volvo — Gothenburg — and began her career at the automaker nearly 30 years ago as a design engineer on the Volvo 850. With avid interests in automotive engineering and nature, Fjording has brought numerous projects from concept to production and has traveled to all corners of the globe in the process.
For most of the 1990s, Fjording was a design engineer in Sweden, briefly working for one of Volvo's suppliers before returning to the automaker in 1997. When Ford bought Volvo in 1999, she began traveling to Dearborn, Mich., to help with engineering. The Ford bosses offered her a job at the automaker that year, and Fjording moved to the U.S., going between Dearborn and Chicago to launch the D3 platform — a design that was to underpin at least eight North American Ford Motor Co. models.