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Victor Muller Interview

On the liberation of Trollhättan

Matt Davis
Aug 5, 2010 SHARE

I think I've finally got quite the grasp on this whole Spyker and Saab situation, and on the intentions of Victor Muller. It was driving me a tad bonkers trying to nail it down, too. After all, I already had a one-on-one with Saab's former almost-savior Christian von Koenigsegg, only to have it announced soon after that the whole deal was off.

Epcp_1009_06_o+victor_muller+interview Photo 2/2   |   Victor Muller Interview

But with all due respect, I am very much gladdened that the new owner is Victor Muller with his cohorts versus von Koenigsegg and his. Muller is outspoken, a clever legal know-it-all, and endlessly blunt and enthusiastic, and this is exactly the ball of energy the Saab situation needs. He's also a confirmed Saab fanatic.

One thing both von Koenigsegg and Muller shared is that neither one wanted/wants to get rid of Saab CEO Jan-Åke Jonsson and his crew in Trollhättan. Jonsson was handcuffed for years by GM Europe and GM Detroit, neither of which understood what best to do to maximize the Saab legend. Now Saab is independent again and being run by the Dutch-Swedish Nordic brotherhood. Here's hoping that Muller's energy rubs off a bit on the sleepy Trollhättan management style.

ec: So, can you talk to us about the fallout now that the deal is sealed between you and GM to buy Saab?
VM: To be honest, there were probably ten times along the way where I was sure the deal was off, I was totally desperate and angry, and sometimes just completely pissed off. All I saw was Saab lying on the floor breathing its last and we were pounding its chest to keep it alive.

ec: Can you explain why it was all so hard to get done?
VM: It was clear that GM CEO Ed Whitacre, along with both Fritz Henderson and Rick Wagoner before him, not to mention GM Europe together with the German government and Sweden's own industry ministry, all were resigned to killing Saab. It was incredibly frustrating dealing with this wall of naysayers. Once the news broke that Koenigsegg's bid was dead, everyone was almost delighted that Saab was finished. When I heard the news, I talked with my partners and we resolved to make an offer. Bob Lutz is the only guy I know who responds immediately to every e-mail and text message. The guy seems wired like this at all times. I wrote him to suggest our intent to make an offer and his reply came on the same day.

ec: How exactly do you plan to undo what GM did to Saab? Can you do better?
VM: First let me remind you that GM did let Saab build the Aero X concept for the 2006 Geneva show. And despite all of the troubles over these 19 years, they sold us the entire company for $545 million, which is basically the price of a wind tunnel. We have the luxury of a fully developed new 9-5 model to launch right away, then there will be a 9-5 SportCombi, a terrific 9-4X crossover, and then the next 9-3 that we'll show as a concept in 2011. All of this is paid for in the deal. What we need to help add back in to Saab is the building of totally Saab Saabs, the quirkiness and coolness and unique pride that have been visibly lost over the years. And by the way, the naming goes back to the original pattern, too, with the 2012 Saab 93 being the first to remove the dash.

ec: Is the 2012 Saab 93 completely paid for through to start of production?
VM: Not through to that point. But all of the development has been done and we're at the point of design freeze. You'll be happy with how far we bring the core Saab back to being more like a Saab. And even though this new 9-5 family and next year's 9-4X don't have much of my input, they start the ball rolling back to what Saab has always stood for. I love the new 9-5's looks with the clean exterior and the aeronautics-influenced interior. I'm also a big fan of the midsized GM crossovers and the 9-4X really made an impression on people when it was shown in Detroit at the start of 2008. I feel very fortunate to be inheriting this existing portfolio.

ec: Which markets are your immediate priorities to get sales numbers up from the 8,680 total sales in 2009, down from the 2007 near-record of 133,000?
VM: The numbers need explaining. First, the press has been using the adjective "loss-making" when talking about Saab for nearly five years and it simply wasn't true. It was frustrating for Saab fanatics like me. Not only did we have to wait 13 years for this next 9-5, but we waited a ridiculous amount of time for four-wheel drive, all while GM Europe took whatever profit Saab was making and threw them into the Opel/Vauxhall black hole.
Another thing is that Saab has never been bankrupt; GM went bankrupt, and Saab was sacrificed for it. So since the high sales of 2007, it's been a steady downhill spiral. When GM got into serious trouble at the start of 2008, it was almost happy to announce that it wanted to dump Saab, Pontiac, and Saturn. (And don't get me started on Pontiac.) But the yanking away of Saab profits, the endless delay for the 9-5, the decision to get rid of Saab and others, the GM bankruptcy, and then the Swedish government's attitude to not help save the company-all of it ruined any chance Saab may have had to maintain sales. By mid-2009 suppliers stopped delivering parts to Trollhättan and all production ended in July. We've only got about 300 cars left on the ground to sell in the United States.
To answer your question, though, we're focusing hard on Sweden, the UK, and the United States as our three major markets to sell between 50,000 and 55,000 units over the rest of 2010 once 9-5 deliveries start in mid-spring.

ec: Through all of this drama, have you lost the support of many dealers and customers?
VM: There was certainly every good reason, sure, but I was amazed by the support. Of the 1,100 Saab dealers worldwide, 220 of them in the U.S. alone, we've only lost a few. When GM and the Swedish government rejected our next-to-last bid before the Christmas holidays, that was a down point. But we had no deadline, so I came back with another offer after beating my head against the wall for two weeks. One of the details we added that tipped the scales was that we would eliminate no dealers. That was huge because then both GM and the Swedish government were in a tight spot, since we immediately had the support of everyone who worked in those dealerships, and they were very vocal about what would happen if Saab closed. Then the European Investment Bank came through in February with backing for the Swedish national debt office to make the final $545 million loan, and at that point the pressure was really on in Stockholm. They couldn't back out. As far as customers, we've lost some who would have happily purchased a Saab just last year if circumstances hadn't been so bad. If we get back just a portion of those people while bringing in new Saab customers, we'll be on our way. The new 9-5 is a great start.

ec: Besides great touches like removing the dash from between the model name numbers and giving us a new generation of Viggen high-performance cars, what else can we expect?
VM: Who made the awful decision all those years ago to force the Scania Griffin onto the Saab badge? It used to be this wonderful graphic representation of a turbo-prop airplane with a beautiful font for the letters. We'll return to that branding as soon as we can. Also, there's a good reason I had an old Saab 92 on the stand at the Geneva show this year, because we'll show a Saab 92 concept hopefully by the end of 2011 or start of 2012. And remember the 92 small wagon? We've designed that, too, and it's gorgeous.

ec: What about motorsports? You've had some modest success with your Team Orange Spykers in the Le Mans endurance series, and there's your recent drama in the 2007 Formula One season. What about Saab coming back to rallying at some level?
VM: You can be sure that I know everything about Saab's racing legend and I would definitely love to see Saabs competing in the future. For the moment, however, we need to fix the company and sell 120,000 cars per year.

ec: Might we see Spykers built in Trollhättan alongside the Saabs?
VM: There's a very good possibility that the Peking-to-Paris SUV could be built at a facility in or near the Saab factory.

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By Matt Davis
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