Earlier last month I had the privilege to interview three key people at Saabvägen 5 in Trollhättan: Tijs Nijland (Certification Engineer), Hans-Martin Duringhof (Director Powertrain Integration & Chassis) and Frank Smit (Director Vehicle Programs CV/EV & member of the NEVS management board). Besides the fact that we all share the same country of origin (The Netherlands) we obviously also share the passion for SAAB. I asked them about what got them to Sweden and to NEVS and how they see the future.
Frank Smit: from Södertälje to Trollhättan
Frank relocated in 2001, but had been on Swedish soil a few times earlier. “My SAAB connection came really early. My dad worked at Scania Netherlands and we loved to toy around with cars back home.” But what made you move to Sweden? “Well, my parents used to go to Sweden on holidays and –as we had become SAAB fans- we had our regular stop in in Trollhättan. I really liked it and when I had the chance to get an internship at SAAB Powertrain in Södertälje in 2001, I took it. So all communications were in English I suppose? “Initially yes, but I made the mistake (or maybe that was my fortune…) to say to my colleagues that I could speak some Swedish, which they took as the sign to stop speaking in English with me. I’m using Swedish every day now, we’re even speaking it between us three here at work- much easier!”
From defence to cars for Tijs Nijland
Tijs only arrived in Sweden about a year and a half ago, but had quite a history in the country prior. “I spent a lot of time in Sweden with one of my previous employers, the Dutch ministry of Defence. They were buying military vehicles in Örnsköldsvik and when I started there they were looking for someone who would be able to location visits ‘every once in a while’. That actually turned into a situation where I spent more time in Sweden that in The Netherlands so I got to know the country a little bit. Then my girlfriend got a job in Skövde, 100 km from Trollhättan and that’s why we moved.” So how did you end up at NEVS? “The last couple of years I had been doing certification work at the Dutch National Aerospace Laboratory and when I saw on Saabcars.com that they were looking for a Certification Engineer, I applied and from there onwards it all went really fast. And to add, the passion for SAAB is something from my childhood. Our neighbour worked at the local SAAB dealer and was always driving the latest models.”
Chapter 3 for Hans-Martin Duringhof
“SAAB is really a family affair for me. My grandparents started one of the first SAAB dealerships in The Netherlands in the fifties. My parents later took over and ran the business until 2008. My own involvement started from about 1993 when I actually was able to combine my studies and later my work with being my father’s right hand in sales and IT. I started at NEVS just after Tijs, in December 2013. I had worked at SAAB Automobile before and after that at AAM, both in Trollhättan. My main focus was on all-wheel powertrains, a really exciting area of innovation with actually even a few patents in my name! I had always had much fun at work but realised in 2013 that I was missing something. I was passing by the SAAB factory every day and was seeing the number of cars in the parking lot grow daily and when the announcement was made that the production would be started again, I just felt I had to be a part of this. So I started at NEVS the day after the first 9-3N had rolled off the assembly line and said to myself: ‘chapter 1 is now closed, I want to be a part of chapter 2’. At that time I didn’t know what chapter 2 would look like, but now I am here for chapter 3!”
The future: the three Musketeers
Looking at the current situation at NEVS with the reorganisation phase behind you now, what is going to be the biggest challenge in the coming three months? Frank: “We’ll need to get the new partners on board as soon as possible. These signatures need to be put on paper so that the rest of our plans indeed can be realised. That will then also be the moment when we’re going to need to recruit more people. At this point we’re still working hard to develop the ‘next generation’ cars. That process has never stood still but is in need to be put into the next gear and the first need we’re going to have is more engineers.”
Don’t you think it will be tricky to get these engineers (back)? As strange as it may sound, I actually believe it will be relatively easy to recruit them. I think that NEVS and the vision we have is compelling enough to attract the right people. When we then on top will have an attractive strong new owner, things will probably become even easier.”
Looking into the further future, say 3 years, suppose you have unlimited resources and money, what then?
“Well, by then we’ll be producing cars that will give you goose bumps. Cars many people aspire to have and maybe aren’t accessible to all, but touch your heart. When you look at them, when you have one standing in your driveway, and when you drive it of course. Like the SAAB car always has been: not like all the others and cars that are really fun to drive. Another aspect is that we’ll then be having a really compelling service relationship, much more connected. I believe this is not only crucial but also relatively easily doable. We don’t have the ambition to reach Volkswagen Group volumes and for them it seems much more difficult to know all their customers by name. For us I think it’s much easier and the technology to make this possible is already available.
Our current owner has a really strong and compelling vision, he’s really going ‘all the way’ and independently of what his future share in NEVS will look like, Kai Johan will continue to deliver a key contribution to realise this vision. There is nobody in the world who would start a new car manufacturing company based on combustion engines. The potential new partners we’re currently talking with share this vision. I therefore don’t believe that a new owner will want to change course dramatically, focuses on conventional engines and start making cubic-shaped Toyota’s. If only as this isn’t a competitive advantage. But don’t worry: the three Musketeers are here!”
Footnote: this is post is an abridged version of the article that will appear in the July issue of “Saabberichten”, the official magazine of SAAB Club Netherlands. The interview was taken prior to the NEVS announcements on May 27th.