Some former Saab employees currently meet on Friday mornings at Innovatum, the engineering and technology hub that surrounds the Saab Museum. They get together for the social contact as well as to share some resources and advice as they make their individual trip through a collective post-Saab journey.
I’m leaving Sweden today, but before I jump on a plane that’ll eventually take me to Holland, I’ll fulfil an invitation to speak at this morning’s Innovatum meeting.
This is the text of that presentation.
When Michael first asked me to address you here today, it was an invitation that was very easy to accept. The chance to address one’s colleagues a final time before heading halfway around the world was one that I wasn’t going to miss.
For me, the simple opportunity to call each of you “colleagues” was one that I treasured. I can only wish it was something that lasted for longer than it has.
Michael has asked me to speak about Saabs United and this is appropriate because the journey I’ve taken that culminates in me speaking to you here today began with my website writings for Saabs United and its predecessor, Trollhattan Saab.
I started writing about Saab primarily because I loved the idea of writing in a public forum. When blogging software became more user-friendly and widely available, I searched for a topic to write about. The one thing I was passionate about, and knew something about, was Saab Automobile. That spark of interest quickly became a flame and I’m sure my wife will agree that the flame turned into a raging fire, pretty quickly.
Over the first four years, Trollhattan Saab gained a substantial audience and I was fortunate to have some wonderful experiences to share with them. I made my first pilgrimage to Trollhattan with some financial support from my readers in July 2007, attending the 60th Anniversary Saab Festival, which absolutely blew my mind.
This trip also saw my first in-person contact with the company, with me benefitting from some fantastic one-on-one time with Christer Nilsson from Saab’s PR Team. Christer showed me around the factory and introduced me to a lot of people inside the offices at Saab. The PR department knew who I was, but not many others were aware of my work at that time. Christer said that the company was mostly pleased with the content of the site, but also indicated that I’d put a couple of noses out joint with some company criticisms and especially the showing of some spy photos (mostly of the refreshed 2008 model 9-3).
The mixed nature of my notoriety is something that was highlighted during the festival dinner, when I met Jan-Ake Jonsson for the first time. I walked up to him and said hello, introducing myself as Steven Wade, from Tasmania, Australia. I’m not a vain person, but I figured this introduction might have included enough information for him to put two and two together and figure out who I was. However, he simply remarked upon the long distance I’d travelled to be there, etc, etc. As we continued talking, I mentioned that I was also the author of a website called Trollhattan Saab, at which his expression changed and he said “Oh, you’re THAT GUY!”
One of the regrets from my time here in Trollhattan is that I didn’t get one of those blue and red factory jackets with my name stitched on the front. It was a dream of mine to have one of those, but in place of “Steven Wade” being written above the chest pocket, I would have got them to stitch in “That Guy”.
Towards the end of 2008, I was considering the closure of Trollhattan Saab. I still loved writing about Saab, but the demands on my time were getting more and more imposing. I’d always believed that a manufacturer could benefit from a site like Trollhattan Saab, but the site did not provide a living income and with the stresses of my day job and family life, something had to give.
As I was considering all this, GM made a decision of their own, announcing that they would either sell or close Saab Automobile. Unbeknown to GM, their decision would give rise to a new website – Saabs United.
The name was chosen 1) because it rolled off the tongue nicely, and 2) as a reflection of what was happening at the time. For years I’d railed against the road that GM had taken Saab down and now it seemed that GM were determined to close Saab for good. It was time for people to unite behind the company. My decision to stop writing was put off for a while, until this Saab ordeal reached a resolution one way or another.
My commitment was to make sure that readers got the most full and accurate news possible. If GM were going to make a decision to close Saab Automobile, it was going to be a decision made in the full light of day, under a media spotlight rather than in a silent, dark office somewhere in Detroit.
I’d been writing about Saab for 4 years by this point and had struck up some good, regular relationships with people inside the company – both official and unofficial. Michael asked if I could finally reveal the identity of Djup Strupe – that mysterious source who always seemed to have the right inside information at the right time.
The truth is, there were many Djup Strupes. Some of them may be in this building right now, or reading this letter on my website and smiling to themselves. Look around the room, and if you see someone smiling right now, be very suspicious!
I developed a lot of reliable sources. They were people who recognised that I did what I did purely out of love for the company. Because of this pure motivation, they came to trust me, knowing that I would not divulge their identity or write material in such a way as to jeopardise their position.
In time, those sources included various people who were involved in the process of selling/buying Saab. Access right from the heart of the process improved the quality of information even further. There were many times when I would read the guesswork written by the motoring and business press, especially here in Sweden, and laugh to myself at the stabs in the dark that they were taking.
This was a very time consuming process. My trusty Macbook never left my side that Australian summer and 18-hour days were commonplace as the news unfolded. I have a photo at home from a vacation that I took with my family and my Canadian in-laws in January 2010. We were staying at a beautiful east-coast town in northern Tasmania and the photo shows us sitting at the kitchen table, playing a game of “Risk”, with my laptop open on a stool beside me.
The growth in SU’s reputation made it the perfect springboard for the Saab Support Convoys that took place later that month. The idea started in Holland and grew as time marched on without a final decision on Saab’s fate. We hadn’t leveraged Facebook or Twitter at that point in time, but we still managed to gather about 10,000 people in 60 locations around the world.
As you know, Saab was sold. You may or may not know that I was fortunate enough to attend the handover from GM to Spyker Cars in person, in Stockholm. At the formal dinner that evening, I was astounded by the number of people inside the process who had used SU as a news source – from people inside the transaction on Spyker/Saab’s side, to GM people, government people and others.
It was an ordeal that was both terrible and wonderful at the same time and it showed me irrefutable proof that there was a place for a site like this inside an automobile company.
Fast forward to November 2010 and the Los Angeles Auto Show. I’d applied for a social media position, advertised by Saab a month or so before. My interview was with Victor Muller, Jan-Ake Jonsson and Knut Simonsson at the hotel we were all staying at, in Santa Monica. At the end of that meeting, I was pretty sure that I was going to get an opportunity that I’d dreamed of for 5 years – the chance to work for Saab Automobile.
I started in April 2011 and I don’t have to tell any of you what has happened since that time. My assignment with Saab turned out to be a short one. We never got the chance to explore everything that Inside Saab could do because of the circumstances facing the company. The factory wasn’t running and when you’re writing from the inside, there’s very little you can say on such sensitive events.
I guess all this brings us to where we are today – hoping for the best but preparing for (or dealing with) the worst.
For me, my time at Saab was far too short. The idea of returning to my old job in Tasmania, after a taste of something like this, is an idea that I will accept with the most acute reluctance. I truly believe that the concept behind Inside Saab was a courageous one, and one that few other car companies could, or would, contemplate. To take a step that would lift the veil on decisions and processes, to invite customers into a more personal relationship – a conversation – is a thing that most car companies would flee from.
When I started at Saab, we had so much going for us. Sales were starting to stabilise and improve. We had the best product portfolio in the company’s history, a portfolio that was only going to grow with more immediate releases plus wonderful new vehicles under development. As I was soon to learn, we also had truly wonderful people who were engaged with their work and cared passionately about their jobs.
We had everything we needed except for the cash.
This is not a time for figuring out why, so I’ll leave that well alone.
But for me, today is a sad time. It is the day when I will leave Sweden and start the journey back home to my family in Tasmania, a family that I had hoped to bring here some time in the future. It is a day, for me personally, to be thankful for all the good things that happened, and to reflect and wonder about what could have been.
For me, the mere fact that I can say that I worked for Saab Automobile is something that I will always cherish. I would never put my own name with theirs, but to have worked for the same company as people I’d only ever read about in books – people such as Rolf Mellde, Sixten Sason, Erik Carlsson, Bjorn Envall, and the one legend I was fortunate enough to spend some time with – Bob Sinclair – that opportunity was mindblowing. To have shared even the smallest amount of time with my modern day Saab heroes such as Peter Backstrom, Peter Johansson, Jan-Ake Jonsson, Victor Muller (and Michael Backman 😉 ) is again, something that I’ll always cherish.
More than stargazing, though, it’s the relationships that you forge with people in the trenches – your colleagues – that stick with you the most. I have never before worked with a group of such wonderful, energetic, intelligent and passionate people. And I may not do so ever again. I will miss this business so much and more than anything else, that’s because of you.
I am exceedingly proud to have been an employee of Saab Automobile.