The Real Saab

There’s been some terrible, terrible news coming out of Sweden this week. Swedish tax authorities had three former Saab executives arrested, kept in cells overnight, and all because they wanted to ask them some questions? Sounds like jackboot jante law to me.

They were kept separate, as if somehow three people could establish a credible cover story for elaborate tax fraud whilst indulging in a little officer-supervised fika.

What an absurd situation.

I can’t speak for Saab’s former financial controller because I never met the man, but anyone who’d had anything to do with either Kristina Geers or Jan-Ake Jonsson (and I’m not JAJ’s biggest fan, by the way) will have a hard time believing accusations of their deliberate involvement in manipulating the books or creating convoluted business relationships designed to hoodwink the state’s pinheads. With everything Saab went through from 2009 to 2011, I can barely believe they’d have the time, let alone the intention.

All this mud got me thinking about The Real Saab. The Saab that caught my eye in the first place. The Saab that had a brief chance to live again before its final demise in December 2011.

The Real Saab was a company that did things different, not to be different for the sake of it, but because they had conviction based on experience and an engineering and design ethos based on local necessity.

The Real Saab started with simple, tough, but lightweight cars that met a harsh market. The company implemented new technologies and surprised the market time and again with turbochargers, convertibles and safety technology long before any substantial safety regulations ever existed (conviction, again).

The Real Saab did things that were so crazy that they ended up making sense.

They entered their tiny motorsport team into a Monte Carlo rally and nearly took a podium spot – with a 2-stroke, 2-door, 7-seater station wagon. I still find it amazing that they actually made a 2-door, 7-seat station wagon but they did, for nearly 20 years.

The Real Saab made a small fibreglass 2-seater that had no real performance credentials, a freewheel transmission and no real place in their lineup. It’s quite possibly my personal most-desired Saab right now.

The Real Saab engineered a sub-120g emission vehicle that their former parent company – with all its global wisdom and resources – said was impossible. And they were on the cusp of delivering even more in that respect, too.

The Real Saab brought turbocharging to mass-market vehicles 30 years before the mass-market made it more normal than abnormal. They made a 9000 Turbo that could accelerate through overtaking speeds faster than a Ferrari and a 9000 Aero that might just be the best car they ever made.

“When you see it in your mirrors you know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, what is about to happen” – or words to that effect.

The Real Saab had an unbreakable and undeniable link to the region in which it was built. Saab was Trollhattan and Trollhattan was Saab. Saab took Sweden to the world in a way that few other companies or artists were able to do.

The Real Saab fought tooth and nail to stay alive in 2009, to the point of entering reconstruction in a move that surprised the parent company that was trying to wind it down. The Real Saab involved a spirit that was innovative, mischievous, full of integrity and purpose. It was a spirit that got things done when people thought those things were reserved for much bigger companies. It was a spirit that gave the cars a soul, a life force that owners connected with and loved.

That’s the Saab I came to adore. That’s the Saab that I truly believe had a chance to live again under Spyker’s ownership. I 100% believe that Victor Muller got it when it came to Saab and the company was doing innovative things once again. They just didn’t have the money to keep it going.

All this crap from the Swedish Government? It’ll blow over in good time.

The Spirit of Saab, the Real Saab, will remain long after the current crop of cretins in the Riksdag have left public life, long after their minions at the tax office have given up what I’m sure will be proven to be a puerile chase.

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  1. Good, to-the-point article. This was the Saab I knew in my younger days, and the Saab I loved. I agree that VM got it, but I’m afraid that it was their last chance. I’m still hoping NEVS can resurrect that Saab, but more and more, I think it’s just wishful thinking. Hope I’m wrong.

  2. I’m getting a bit tired of this “Swedish Government” every time there is some negative news about the former Saab Automobile. They have nothing to do with the current actions by the Swedish Tax Agency. In fact, they are not allowed to have any influence at all over their day-to-day actions. The Tax Agency operates by the law, and that has been rubberstamped by the Chamber elected by the citizens of Sweden. In this part of the world that is called democracy.

    As for them being arrested… If the suspected crime is big enough (in this case, is about substantial amounts of money), the authorities has every right to keep the parties separated and under control until the interrogation is done. I understand you like to think of them being thrown into a concrete bunker over night like in some old movie, but that is not how it works here. I guess most people never before brought in by the police, interrogated, and maybe kept there over night would be shocked and confused, but somewhere you have to accept the laws of your society. And they are quite liberal in Sweden.

    I do not know exactly what they were questioned about and if they in fact have (willfully or not) broken the law in some regard. So I’m not gonna be on the barricade proclaiming their innocence just because they worked for a company I liked very much. We just have to wait and see.

    1. You might well be sick of it, but that’s largely what you’re going to get here and I don’t think that will come as a surprise.

      If the translation of Kristina Geers statements to appearing on SU are accurate, them I’m much more comfortable with my position that with yours.

      Our tax office (the ATO) runs independently of government as well, but if you think that state organisations like this don’t have their ties to the government of the day, that they don’t have their own internal politics or targets, then that’s a very naive position to take IMHO. This is not a brainless, mindless machine we’re talking about here. I work for one, so I should know.

      To treat people that way, to arrest them and hold them overnight simply for questioning about accounting procedures – when one of them is a mother to young children with her husband working overseas – is quite heavy-handed. To splash their names all over the papers with your public statements about what you THINK they’ve done – NOT what’s proven – is not natural justice.

      I’m not proclaiming their innocence, either, but I will suggest they’re innocent until proven otherwise. Snatching a woman off the street with a surprise arrest, keeping her from her kids and all because of some perceived accounting irregularities sounds pretty heavy to me. It might feel normal to you, but that’s not the sort of normal I’d like to happen here in Oz.

      1. You are right Swade, there are strong bonds between government agencies and the departments that is ruled and run by politicians.
        But not from the government and politicians directly, but through the culture at the departments. And THAT is set by the elected government.
        I work within an agency (not the tax) and have felt the differences when the government replace the top name within a agency (it’s the democratic way of ruling an agency in Sweden, by appointing the top position)

        That said, I do belive in the our laws and the way we handle them. But in this case, someone got a bit high and got public with just about everything. And that isn’t a normal way here in Sweden.

        It’s when the court starts the lawers and all goes public. When the investigation is almost done.

        1. “But in this case, someone got a bit high and got public with just about everything. And that isn’t a normal way here in Sweden.”

          I agree. But its still absurd,

      2. This whole story is absurd, i hardly believed it when i heard jaj, mr straight him self, got arrested. Beyond absurd. But one should first ask one self what would be the government agenda to do a thing like this? Im not a fan of the current swedish government but i cant imagine one single reason they would have to awake the Saab trauma they them self are partly responsible for. That does not make sense at all. There is obviously error here, but until someone proves me wrong im not gonna believe this is a government plot.

    2. “I’m getting a bit tired of this “Swedish Government” every time there is some negative news about the former Saab Automobile. They have nothing to do with the current actions by the Swedish Tax Agency. In fact, they are not allowed to have any influence at all over their day-to-day actions. The Tax Agency operates by the law, and that has been rubberstamped by the Chamber elected by the citizens of Sweden. In this part of the world that is called democracy.”

      You truly believe this statement? Time to take off those “Rose colored glasses” kid. Your naiveté is showing, I’m afraid.

      There isn’t ANY government agency in ANY country on this planet that isn’t DIRECTLY influenced by the party in power.

      In this part of the galaxy that is called POLITICS.

  3. Swade, you have good reason to be loyal to the people he used to work for and I am sure your comments are made with good intentions and a sense of frustration about the countless accidents and rough deals that crushed the once-mighty Saab.

    However, CTM – I fully agree with you. The idea the Swedish tax authorities would go after these guys just out of spite, or because of some grand conspiracy to destroy Saab at all costs, or even because of a “jackboot” mentality and the totalitarian fascist government that implies, is not a credible judgement to put it mildly.

    In the past I too have been annoyed at the apparent failure of the Swedish government to do ‘enough’ to help Saab between 2009 and 2011. But then I realised that, frankly, a sense of perspective was required with regard to Saab on the one hand, and on the other the wider issues facing both the Swedish economy and the global car industry, both of which are many orders of magnitude greater. The fact that Sweden’s economy is doing much better than most, while Saab and Volvo have both taken a hammering, has a lot to do with the fact that the Swedish state, among the many other things it actually appears to do right, makes sure people pay their bloody taxes.

    I suspect the Swedish tax authorities and the police will have had very good reason for taking the actions they have taken. Those actions might turn out to have been mistaken as the investigation progresses, and innocent people may well be entitled to redress, but we will just have to wait and see, as you say CTM.

    Successful social democracy and tax-dodging are not compatible.

  4. I have been looking a bit more at the Saab tax story and I do feel sorry for the people who were arrested. I don’t really understand why it has to be made public at this stage, either. It is surely unfair that people are dragged through a media circus when no wrongdoing has actually been proven.

    I believe that the former Saab people who have been questioned are innocent, and I am sure this will all blow over at some point.

    But it could be that a mistake has been made somewhere, and the tax authorities are entitled to investigate matters to get to the bottom of it, especially if it’s a lot of money we’re talking about. As has been pointed out, the people running Saab were under intense pressure at the time, making the chances of an innocent mistake more likely.

    My real beef is with the whole issue of excessive corporate tax avoidance. Interestingly, it seems the Swedish government are on the warpath with regards to taxation at this moment. As I have already stated, I have sympathy with that approach – but not if it means harassing innocent people. Again, if a mistake has been made in this instance, then the money owed should be paid.

    Swade, I think your portrait of the ‘real Saab’ is wonderful. I personally believe Saab can take that mantle back up again under NEVS. Let’s see what the future holds.

  5. Sounds like tax people showing how they justify their jobs , bullie the lil fellow in the room , or the dead horse , same thing . Now to spend some more tax money on their favorite lawyers . I do doubt the Swedish people are in on this witch hunt , but I do belive there may be some favor to large automakers going on .

  6. The government put Saab in a very difficult position by saying NO! to everything they came up with for survival. And now they are trying these mafia-methods against those who tried their best to save the company.
    It is sickening!

  7. If GM and GM’s CEO would be evading taxes by having him work on a quasi-legal consultancy basis instead of normal employment, Saab fans would be all over the case demanding swift justice and heads to roll. When it’s Saab and VM, it’s no moral problem. I’m very amused by the double standards involved.

    1. Latest reports are that the tax authority approved all of this when Saab’s lawyers went over the consulting contract with them. Then it seems the tax authority changed their minds two years later. If GM had done this and got a approval and then had the rules changed on them, I might find it amusing, but I would also not want them to be arrested in held in jail overnight. I do NOT see a double standard here in our reaction.

        1. The people who were hauled in and interrogated who have been speaking to the press about what they were asked about.

    2. Victor was very open about the arrangement and they fully intended to replace Victor as the CEO as soon as NDRC cleared the way. Unfortunately the Chinese deal dragged out and an opportunity to hire a new CEO never arose.

        1. First of all, a law forbidding the role of CEO being filled by a consultant seems a bit unlikely. And according to Mrs Geers the lawyers had consulted the tax guys and been given a thumbs up. I.e. no law had been violated.

          I was merely pointing out that Victor’s role as CEO was highly temporary and that is IMO a good reason why he wasn’t employed. Back when I was working as a consultant, temporarily filling someone’s shoes was quite common. I once worked 18 months like that. I hope I wasn’t breaking the law too..?

          But this much was fairly obvious Keith. Trolling much?

          1. I wouldn’t think you were breaking the law. Like you, I too have been paid as a consultant for an extended period. I was paid in my name, and I paid employment taxes in the state I was working in.

            However, what if you or I instead had our consulting payments directed to a Latin American Tug Holding company based in the Dutch Antilles, and avoided paying employment taxes.

            If you or I did that, it is quite possible tax authorities may feel misled.

            But you and I didn’t do that, so we can sleep well.

          2. Keith, you are arguing a completely different case than the tax authorities.

            In Sweden, if you are a regular employee, your employer has the pleasure of paying no less than 30-something percent “social fees”.

            If you are a consultant they pay much less than that (if anything), because that sum is to be paid by the consultant’s employer.

            The tax authorities are now gunning for the social fees/taxes because “a consultant cannot hold the position of ‘CEO'”.

            The nationality of the company employing the consultant has not been mentioned as relevant in the Swedish reports.

            And once again: This arrangement had been approved earlier by other people within the tax office.

    1. I watched the press conference this morning and it was very much a case of mixed emotions. I haven’t had time to write about it yet but maybe tomorrow. Bottom line, very sad indeed.

  8. I often wished GM would have shutdown the Real Saab and let the company and brand have a dignified end. Many things that happened after Saab Automobile was sold just degraded the brand image, regardless of the efforts so many people put into it after Spyker took over.

    It just seems like there is not much dignity left for the Saab brand and it could very well end up like Rover. It would have been nice if they would have pulled the plug in 2010 and let the Real Saab live on from the past, in the cars and our memories. Regardless of what happened with this tax issue, it’s just more negative exposure for the brand. Getting tired of it…

    1. I also feel that the end was sad but endings usually are, for the employees the Spyker time was difference between life or death.

      The fact that no less than 27 companies showed interest in Saab after the bankruptcy and that a company actually bought the estate and are now re-hiring a lot of people means that the former employees actually have a chance to have their jobs back. Had that happened in 2009-2010 when the financial crisis was at its worst stage, I’m certain nobody would have bought Saab and most of the employees would never have had a chance to get any kind of work again… Right now all major industries are moving out of Sweden and unemployment is rising dramatically… NEVS is their last chance…

    2. NEVS is not Saab Automobile and the difference between the Saab brand and former Saab Automobile often seems lost. Those companies that showed interest (including NEVS) were in it for getting a good deal on technology, buildings and the brand. Not because they cared very much for Saab Automobile, the brand or the owners. If they cared for the company and employees, perhaps they could have worked with Spyker to keep the company going. If NEVS wouldn’t have been able to use the Saab name, would anyone still care? If the new BAIC Saabs would have the Saab name on it, would that make a difference?

      I wish the people in Trollhattan all the best but full-scale production of Saabs in Trollhattan seems unlikely. But every bit helps, even if it is supporting manufacturing in China. I understand that everyone that worked for or was involved with Saab wants to believe things are still the same but deep down, we all know it will never be the same again.

      1. Why didn’t they help SAAB Automobile AB, simple answer that we’ve answered on SU several times. When SAAB Automobile AB started to stir up things in China and important people realized that they needed money which was in November-December 2010. It took most companies at least 6 months to form some kind of plan and find funding and by that time it was already too late to save Saab Automobile, the debt had increased too much… and as we know in the end of 2011 it had risen to 150 million Euro. NEVS estimated the debt at that time to be at most 100 million which would have been an impossible situation to save…

        Saab needed a partner in the mid 2010, when the 9-5 was delayed and the 9-5 SC was postponed along with the delayed 9-4x the game was over…

        1. Still too bad there wasn’t a large European car company interested in Saab. That’s a sign things weren’t working out for Saab.

          It’s water under the bridge and it is what it is. Real Saab means different things to different people.

          1. I agree with you… but lets give the new guys a chance, I think we’ll be positively surprised! =)

    3. Agreed, Wulf. The Spyker era, though filled with hubris, did not end well.

      If anything, GM should have offered Saab for sale many years before, perhaps as early as 2006. Looking back, that was the last point at which the Saab brand, buoyed by the AeroX and some fresh 9-3 and 9-5 face lifts in the pipeline, would have garnered a reasonable price.

      If we’d only known.

  9. First of all, let me say that there are two sides to every story, and that’s why we/they have a judicial system. Until that comes to bear, we don’t have much to go on.

    The notion that white-collar crime is any less criminal is something that I generally reject. Certainly, the treatment of an accused embezzler should presume that they will be violent, however, surprise arrests and hard deadlines are part of the system and part of life. If you assert innocence, it seems Draconian to snatch someone by surprise. Change your opinion to guilty, and the arrested is getting rightful deserts. It’s a matter of perspective.

    Until we know more, I’ll reserve judgement.

    PS — I know very little about the Swedish tax laws and law enforcement, but extrapolating on our system, tax law is notoriously arcane. All three of these people could have been absolutely well-meaning and still run afoul of some stipulations that are little-known or conflict with other business law. Saab was in forced receivership/bankruptcy, owned by a US company, a Dutch company, had manufacturing interests in Germany, sold significant assets to a China consortium, etc. within the space of a whirlwind 20-24 months. I’d be surprised if the most dedicated accountant could have reconciled all of those transactions correctly with respect to all of the requirements levied on all of those jurisdictions and currencies. The fact that all of this is only now in the papers may be a testament to just how long it takes to unravel all of the threads to determine the legitimacy of actions taken then.

  10. Wouldn’t it have been better to look at it “a bit more” before your first comment then? (By the way, current government is not social democrats; but I guess it doesn’t matter to people abroad.)

    Anyhow; thank you Swade, ditto and amen!

    I consider this to be heavy handed. As Geers said to the Swedish radio, they, the three former Saab executives, have had a couple of years to come up with a story; but no, they must be kept locked in overnight.

    If there wasn’t anything wrong with the consulting contract (several have had a look at it), about consultancy fees, how can they then come up with the idea that it should have been treated as salary in the books? You have to decide, don’t you?

    1. Tripod:
      “If there wasn’t anything wrong with the consulting contract (several have had a look at it), about consultancy fees, how can they then come up with the idea that it should have been treated as salary in the books? You have to decide, don’t you?”

      I think that is a very interesting question, and probably goes to the heart of the issue.

      And yes, you are right. I became more sympathetic towards what the people involved went through based on further reports as they became available to me. That does not mean I think it is wrong for the authorities to investigate.

      I believe the Saab people who were arrested are innocent of deliberate wrongdoing, and that will be proved in time.

      But I think CTM is right to correct the impression that Sweden is running some sort of Gulag. I think the authorities will get to the bottom of this eventually.

      I think we disagree more on some of the background principles Tripod. As you know, the Social Democratics and the Swedish social-democratic system are not the same thing. Reinfeldt’s government would probably be considered dangerously left wing if they operated in the United States!

  11. The above is a reply to Allan B’s second comment above. For some reason it didn’t end up there.

  12. Very good post, Swade, that I had the chance to read on this week of holiday for me. Even if we can not go back to the past, this experience, past, present of future, of the “real Saab” is essential. Your words are part of this amazing Saab culture for me too…

  13. Hello,

    watched nevs presentation video from,saab festivals and i would say that real saab is borning again. Slowly but borning. Tech shift to electric cars, green electricity to charge cars. Offering coventional engines during,transition. Executing phoenix… Doing things differently, thats the real way. Deal with chinese, they will purchase cars…

    i never move on, saab fan forever. Those who are always changing their favorites are not real fans. Sometimes saab, sometimes alfa, plaahplaahplaah

    1. Wow, Pekko. Thanks for that insight. I’m not sure that you actually read the article or any of my previous writings about NEVS but its encouraging that you’re willing to have an opinion and share it. It’s also nice to know that acting like a complete cock isn’t reserved for those in the extreme reaches of the media or politics. It’s obviously alive and well at a grass roots level.

  14. Thanks swade for your kind words. Heh, just purchased ng9-5 thats what real fans do. Thanks for victor building that, unfortunately you were very bad short funded to run struggling car manufacturer. Waiting for the nevs saabs.