Kurt Hellström had moved to Hong Kong as regional manager for Ericsson in Asia when he was persuaded to take over as CEO after Sven-Christer Nilsson. The mobile phone division had encountered problems, so the relative calm that Hellström was looking for as a top manager in Asia was now only a dream. A difficult assignment lay in store and an unanticipated stock market burst was just around the corner.
The 56 year old Hellström took over as CEO in early July of 1999. During his first 18 months, chairman of the board Lars Ramqvist served as group manager, before Hellström also took over that position. In the media Hellström soon became the “face of trouble”.
“Our mobile telephones had gone into the ditch. It proved more difficult than we thought,” explained Hellström in 2008. The company had introduced a new telephone model (T28) in January, but found that they could not deliver to the consumers before late autumn. And this is no way to treat your customers. At the same time there was an ongoing internal reorganization that Hellström described as rampant.
On top of all of this the stock market crashed. And here was a CEO that missed his home in the peaceful village of Strycksele, where he grew up in the Västerbotten region in the northern of Sweden. Instead, Kurt Hellström had to negotiate for one year to unite the Swedish group with the clever Asian designers at Sony.
On the tragic date of September 11, 2001, coincidentally the top level management of Sony and Ericsson met for the very first time. For both companies it became a milestone.
“The solution was for us to become Sony-Ericsson, which included a significant downsizing. It took one and a half years. Today many of Ericsson’s competitors are gone, but not us,” Hellström said in a 2008 interview.
For his own part he chose to retire in 2002, and his successor had to deal with some of the harsh decisions Hellström had been required to make. He has never commented on his predecessors or successors. His point of view is that all personnel in high positions in large groups like Ericsson have the advantage of their predecessors work.
“A predecessor has always done something good that can be continued,” he stated in a 2008 interview. “Then it is up to whoever takes over a large company to pave the way in their own manner.”
“When Lars (Ramqvist) wanted to cease as group manager in 1997, I was not interested in taking over the position. The development had been fantastic. I had worked very hard on mobile telephones. I wanted to move to Asia and work at a high level in a relatively calm environment. But that became yet another step up. Two years later,” concluded Hellström.
What is the major difference in mentality between the Europeans and Asians?
“The longer I stayed there, more than 30 years in Asia, I found more similarities than differences. People are the same everywhere. Thinking is more long term in Asia. Shortsightedness is prevalent on the other side of the Atlantic, in the USA and also in Europe. The Asians have resisted this for a very long time, even if they are influenced by the western countries.”
Kurt Hellström came to Ericsson in 1984 from the American company, ITT. He then became marketing manager for mobile telephony in Asia for Ericsson Radio Systems. He pursued customers in a market that was unknown at the time. He soon gained a reputation as a first rate marketing and sales manager. In 1990 he took over for Lars Ramqvist as CEO of Ericsson Radio Systems and head of the Radio Communications division.
Hellström holds a Masters degree in engineering from the Swedish Royal Institute of Technology. He also has completed management training at Stockholm’s School of Economics and explained in a 2008 interview that as the group manager he saw himself as more of a systems person, while others looked after the consumer side of the business during his time with the company.
When asked what Ericsson meant to him in his professional career when compared with other positions, Hellström answered: “I stayed for 19 years. But I know many people who have spent their whole life at Ericsson. For me it was a feeling and a bit of luck that got me into mobile telephony. I have made a highly improbable trip through history. During the first 100 years of telecommunication not all that much has happened. It was fixed telephony. But later with mobile technology it became an unbelievable revolution.”
On the issue of how scrutinized one is as leader of a large company, he replied: “You live with a lot of inner stress. Everyone is trying to monopolize your time. You can make your own decisions, people often say, but the higher up in the organization you are, the less the decisions are actually your own. Every minute must be prioritized. Some people eat three dinners in the evenings. You excuse yourself to go to the next dinner to hold discussions with new people that are important for the company.”
Hellström has always wanted to take it easier near his home in Västerbotten. Would he take a position as CEO and group manager in 2008?
“I have never been afraid. I know that I can make decisions and lead people that are smarter than me. Others don’t want to delegate responsibility. They want to become managers, but don’t see their own limitations. I am good at finding people that I can agree with, and I know when to get out of the way. I had a clean desk. But I know others that never got anything out of being the leader. One can develop leadership skills, but basically it comes natural. I have always ended up in positions of leadership. I never analyzed why.”
In 2008 Kurt Hellström calls himself a consultant. “But without responsibility.”
Author: Hans Wigstrand