23/09/2021

Swedish management

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The second-in-command in Stockholm was Rudi Fjellsater a charming old boy with thick unruly salt and pepper eyebrows and an impish glint in his eye. Behind him in his office he had a huge oil canvas portraying a blasted heath.

A blasted heath, not Rudi’s actual picture
but gives you the sense of it

I mentioned to him that it was a very depressing image, and he said that was the point, because by contrast it made him look interesting.

ASIDE: Darts had just taken off in the bars of Stockholm and Rudi had a party trick. He would stand at the oche looking perplexed and passing the three darts between his hands, then take one and throw it to stick into his leg. The room breathed in sharply – he had a wooden leg.

The top man was Erik Winberg, a Laplander and a man of very few words. He had a strange management technique. We would have six to ten things we wanted to discuss while in Stockholm and would assemble supporting materials. Inevitably these were more detailed and plentiful for our pet subjects. We would raise one such topic and be ready for battle to ensure our viewpoint was accepted. Erik would simply say ‘Yes. Next.’ You felt cheated after all that preparation, and then he would challenge you on a topic for which you were less prepared. It was as if he could smell each topic’s relevance to us.

His other oddity was that there was no corporate organisational chart. None of his senior people had an identified formal role, they were just known to be senior. They were allocated specific tasks by Erik from time to time. For example, one guy went to work one morning and found he was to leave that day to run the Brazil plant for several months.

This confused meetings but DCP developed a technique for us to keep ahead of the game. We each had an acetate folder with the corner cut out for ease of access to the inserted multiple documents. When we encountered a senior manager and established his current responsibility, we could turn to the acetate wallet where we had our data organised and discuss it towards some conclusion. It never worked for Erik however.

ASIDE: One senior manager had gone to Rome to audit the Italian operation. He cornered me to ask whether in England we tended to believe what our colleagues told us, particularly if two or more had said the same thing. I said that this was mostly the case. He said that in Rome he learned that even if half a dozen came in and independently asserted a fact, he had to assume it was a conspiracy.

Another oddity was when Erik took us and our clients to dinner, invariably at the Stallmästaregården restaurant on the edge of Stockholm. We would receive the large carte in Swedish and ask our hosts to explain each item. When we thought we’d worked our way through it, Erik would then order his choice on our behalf. It was worse with drinks. Again he would order for everyone – starting with an Old Fashioned.

ASIDE: The old Swedish custom of ‘skål’ was still respected by Erik. This tradition meant only a senior person could skål a junior without which you were unable to take a sip yourself. As a foreigner if you reached for your glass one of the senior guys would usually cover your faux pas by skål-ing you.

This involved bringing your glass up to your chin with your forearm horizontal, one at a time looking directly into each person’s eye, saying skål and drinking. Bring it back down to your chin, forearm again horizontal, look at each person once more and then place the glass back on the table. It is said that this was a custom to control the drinking of younger men at the table, particularly at military dinners. The outcome was that most of your drinks were cleared away unfinished because you did not receive enough skåls – a waste of good, and in Sweden, incredibly expensive alcohol.

Erik’s alternative invitation was to call in several of the firm’s female employees and despatch them to a company summerhouse to prepare dinner. We men would finish our business and travel to the summerhouse to eat. Swedish sexism was alive and well!

These summerhouses were on the archipelago of islands beside Stockholm and they had spawned the Ikea business. Stockholmers wanted simple furniture and décor for these part-time homes. Their use was much extended by the midnight sun in those climes. In June/July the sun dips, barely reaching the horizon before it rises again.

ASIDE: All Swedish tents were a dark sludgy green in colour. I felt sorry for one marketing guy who decided to colour his tents yellow to stand out from the competition. But it meant people buying them couldn’t sleep during midnight sun. I took a young engineer to Stockholm to be trained in the factory and when we flew home he explained he couldn’t sleep in his hotel because it had no curtains. He hadn’t noticed the customary venetian blind built in between the two panes of double-glazing.

One of my fondest memories was the August season for kräftfiske (crayfish), when you are supposed to take an akvavit shot with each claw – impossible to achieve. You have to drain the shot in one and invert the glass on your head, giving an akvavit shampoo to cheats. The shots you manage to drink are accompanied by the song Helan Går which essentially proclaims that he who doesn’t down the drink in one will never quench his thirst again – not for that evening anyway.

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