Kurt Hellström took over as the new CEO and President of Ericsson on July 7, 1999. “If I had known what was ahead, I would definitely not have agreed”, he says. And he actually did not want the job.
“I had just moved to Hong Kong and was looking forward to rounding off my career there. I was back in Sweden on holiday in July and I had just taken my Harley-Davidson out of the garage when Lars Ramqvist phoned. I told him I had no time to chat as I was going out on the bike. I had really been looking forward to it. That’s when Lars said: ‘Then get on your bike and drive down to the country to see me. We really have to talk’.”
And that is what he did. The 56-year-old Hellström rode his thunderous Harley-Davidson to Ramqvist’s manor south of Stockholm.
“We sat there talking halfway through the night. Lars told me that Sven-Christer Nilsson had been given the boot as CEO, and he wanted me to take over. ‘Not on your life,’ I said. ‘I really don’t want to.’ But Lars appealed to my loyalty. ‘Kurt, I really am begging you to take the job. You are the right person. Ericsson and I need you.’ I am loyal. I am loyal to Lars – my mentor and someone I admire – and I am loyal to Ericsson. When Lars appealed to this loyalty I was quite simply unable to resist. I said yes.”
But things went wrong with the media from the beginning. Before becoming CEO of Ericsson, Hellström had been head of ERA; under his management it had risen from 15 percent of group turnover to 70 percent – growth without parallel in Sweden’s recent history.
“And so when I took over, there was a press conference and some young woman asked ‘What can you contribute to Ericsson?’ What a question ... I did not know what to say. I had been responsible for building up an operation that yielded 70 percent of the sales of Sweden’s most important company. What did I have to contribute?”
So he started on the wrong foot with the media, and this continued. It was not long before this basically positive, jovial individual became “Cross Kurt” in the media, where he was generally described as hopeless in every way.
Anders Larsson, who worked with Hellström for many years and used to go motorbike riding with him, puts it like this:
“Although he had an intensive timetable, Kurt had made some time for a photograph session. The photographer turned up half an hour late. But he didn’t want any old picture. He had heard about Kurt’s Harley-Davidson and wanted Kurt to pose with it. Kurt refused, perhaps not without some irritation. Then the photographer took a few shots and chose the one that showed Kurt at his absolute grumpiest. After that he was referred to as Cross Kurt in the headlines. Kurt did not mention it himself but I happen to know that at the time he did not have his bike with him.”
When Hellström took over, the decision to move part of the head office to London had already been made. But he did not like this decision himself. “This was a point on which I did not share Lars’s opinion,” he says. Hellström also reacted to the office being so “over the top” and opulently designed. Legally, however, the company remained Swedish. Hellström himself spent more time at Telefonplan in Stockholm than at the London office, but he was usually out traveling.
Author: Svenolof Karlsson & Anders Lugn