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Volvo Cars’ new chief executive Hakan Samuelsson speaks during a news conference in Stockholm Oct. 19, 2012. Chinese-owned car maker Volvo named former MAN SE head Mr. Samuelsson as its new chief executive on Friday. (SCANPIX SWEDEN/REUTERS)
Volvo Cars’ new chief executive Hakan Samuelsson speaks during a news conference in Stockholm Oct. 19, 2012. Chinese-owned car maker Volvo named former MAN SE head Mr. Samuelsson as its new chief executive on Friday. (SCANPIX SWEDEN/REUTERS)

New CEO aims to steer Volvo back on China road Add to ...

New wheels, same deals – that’s how Hakan Samuelsson thinks a life selling trucks makes him the right man to get Volvo Cars back to growth in the key home market of its Chinese owners.

“The products are different,” he told Reuters, looking relaxed after being named CEO in Stockholm on Friday. “But you have the same questions about branding, marketing, the sales organization and development as you have for trucks.”

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The smile belied the scale of the task facing the 61-year-old Swede, former boss of German truck maker MAN, who has been brought in to replace Stefan Jacoby and rebuild profitability.

Bespectacled and slightly built, Mr. Samuelsson faces a major struggle: Volvo is both China’s biggest overseas investment in the auto industry and a key employer in the Nordic state, a brand close to the hearts of many in his homeland.

His main aim, he said, at the helm of Volvo, which was bought from Ford Motor Co. by Zhejiang Geely Holding Group for $1.8-billion (U.S.) in 2010, would be to make the most of what Volvo sees as a clear market opportunity to exploit the massive potential of a growing middle class in China.

Geely owner Li Shufu, known as “Chairman Li” among Volvo executives, has supported ambitious plans for investment of about $11-billion to double annual sales to 800,000 cars by 2020 and boost sales in China to 200,000, from only 47,000 last year.

But Volvo reported a net loss in the first half of 2012 and has faced tough European markets and a slowing Chinese economy.

Mr. Jacoby had already said the China goal would not be met by 2015, as planned. Having suffered a mild stroke in September that kept him from work, the German is now out of a job.

Mr. Samuelsson’s past has offered him plenty of insights into the challenges facing Volvo, where he has already been a board director for the past two years. And he has had his share of hard knocks during a career spanning five decades – not least a German bribery probe still outstanding from his time at MAN.

He started with Swedish truck maker Scania in 1977, rising to become technical director before being poached by MAN in 2000. There, his star rose as he streamlined the company. But he over-reached in launching an unsolicited offer in 2006 for his former employer Scania. It went hostile, poisoned relations with Scania chief executive Leif Ostling and eventually failed.

After MAN dropped its bid in January 2007, the Swede turned his attention to other parts of the business and acquired Volkswagen’s Brazilian heavy truck unit, took a 25-per-cent stake in China’s largest truck maker, Sinotruk, and mapped out a merger of MAN’s two other divisions, Diesel and Turbo.

In the process, MAN grew to become the world’s third-largest heavy truck maker behind Daimler and Volvo.

However, he was sidelined at MAN after Volkswagen bought a stake in the German truck maker and then decided to forge links with Scania, where it was also a shareholder.

Mr. Samuelsson quit MAN in 2009 after the company was implicated in a bribery scandal in Slovenia. German prosecutors said in September that he was being investigated for allegedly aiding and abetting bribery and MAN is seeking damages from the Swede.

Industry analysts are watching to see how Mr. Samuelsson turns his experience to expanding sales, especially in China, while retaining Volvo’s brand premium over Geely-badged cars there.

“The guy has 35 years of experience in the industry behind him,” said Mikael Wickelgren at the Centre for Consumer Science in Gothenburg, Volvo’s home town. “He has a solid background.

“The main challenges are going to be getting Volvo through this crisis in demand.”

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