In memory of Håkan Frisinger

“Håkan Frisinger was an individual and a leader that made a difference. Through his lifetime commitment to Volvo and the Håkan Frisinger Foundation for Transport Research he made a major contribution to strengthening the connection between Swedish research and the vehicle industry,”
/VREF’s Chairman Torbjörn Holmström.

Håkan Frisinger was born in Skövde in 1928 and was raised as one of five sons of Anna and Anders Johansson. Anders Johansson was an entrepreneur, and the family had high ambitions for their boys. The goal was that they would all graduate from high school. To achieve this, they had to work alongside their studies to contribute to family expenses. That is how Håkan Frisinger stepped into the world of Volvo – in the workshop at the engine factory Volvo Skövdeverken – at the early age of 14.

In 1951 Frisinger completed a degree in Mechanical Engineering at Chalmers, which remained an important focal point for him for community and friendship. In 1953 he married Annakarin (born Lindblom) who became his lifelong love.

Following his studies, Håkan Frisinger returned to Volvo Skövdeverken, as one of four civil engineers amongst the facility’s 4000 employees, first as Head of Materials Management and later as a Workshop Engineer. The early 1950s was a time of crises – the Korean War and the Suez Crisis – that forced Volvo to carry out mass layoffs. But it was also a time of optimism and innovation. For example, Håkan Frisinger quickly put into practice the use of forklifts and pallets at the factory.

Lead Engineer Frisinger

In 1959 Håkan Frisinger left Skövdeverken to become the Factory Manager at Bahco Verktygsverkstäder in Enköping. But he soon returned to Skövdeverken in 1960, as Assistant to the Site Manager, and was promoted in 1963 to Lead Engineer and the facility’s Technical Production Manager.

In 1966 Frisinger transferred to Volvo Gothenburg, as Director and Head of Product and Production Coordination. He was thrust into a turbulent Volvo, where both his technical expertise and his personality were put to good use in forging new pathways forward. In 1969 his area of responsibility was expanded when he became the Director of Product Planning for Cars.

In May of 1971 Frisinger was promoted to Director of AB Volvo, Köpingverken. The facility, which produced gearboxes, had experienced an extended period of problems and was in crisis. Two years later, under Frisinger’s leadership, the facility was transformed into a model of achievement within the corporation. In addition, Håkan’s family was happy in Köping. Frisinger was able to indulge and take it a bit easier, and was freed of the head office and intrigue. “One could walk in the parks in the morning and sneak out through the back door at 4pm to play golf – that was a lovely time,” he said in a 2007 interview with the Chalmers alumni association’s publication “Career and Community.”

Home from the USA to a Volvo in crisis

In 1973 Håkan Frisinger attended the Advanced Management Program at Harvard Business School in the United States. When he returned home to Sweden problems had accrued at Volvo in Gothenburg, especially in the cars division. The company had been divided into car and commercial-vehicle divisions, but also needed a knowledgeable and fearless director. Frisinger was difficult to convince, but in 1978 he was promoted to the position of Director for the recently established Volvo Cars, where his responsibilities included overseeing product development and production as well as representation in corporate management.

When Renault became a Volvo stockholder, Frisinger was appointed CEO for Volvo Cars, and in January 1984 he was appointed CEO for the controlling company AB Volvo. He became the Board Chair of several Volvo companies, and outside of Volvo he was appointed board memberships at Atle and Iro, and advisor to his good friend Ingvar Kamprad at IKEA.

Successful leadership

In the 1980s, Volvo Cars was characterized by large development projects. In 1979 Håkan Frisinger had chaired a crisis meeting where the crucial decision regarding the continued development of what became the 700 series was made. Costs had skyrocketed and the project was off schedule, but Håkan Frisinger maintained that there was no other choice than to keep going and complete the work. His decision, and his leadership thereafter of the development of the 700 series, was of paramount importance for Volvo Cars.

“Håkan Frisinger took over a car company that was in very bad shape: it was do or die” said Sten Langenius, who was Frisinger’s colleague and CEO of Volvo Trucks at the time. When asked how he would describe Frisinger as a leader Langenius quickly replied, “Håkan was ‘best in class’ – a label that applied to him at Chalmers and that he brought to Volvo’s car production when he took over. And that was a necessity for getting Volvo Cars back on track. He established ambitious and clear goals, with great self confidence and an infallible memory. He was always fearless and just, happy and positive, and never arrogant.”

Honors from Chalmers University

In 1986 Håkan Frisinger received the Gustav Dahlén Medal from the Engineering Society at Chalmers for his achievements in the Volvo group. “The award was unexpected, but it was an honor and something I cherish as much as the honorary doctorate I received from Chalmers a year or so later,” Håkan told Karriär & Gemenskap in 2007.

The jury for the Gustav Dahlén Medal motivated the award stating: “For his efforts, that have been of crucial importance in dramatically improving quality and productivity and turned Volvo Cars’ deficit into unparalleled profit, Håkan Frisinger has – from the perspective of the individual worker – motivated and educated to improve quality – an effort where he has personally spoken with thousands of people. Håkan has organized product development – especially adapting design to suit the production method – in a way that improved function, quality and production time. Håkan has also led initiatives to rationalize material handling in a way that has liquidated millions of Swedish crowns of previously locked-in capital. His innovative thinking regarding production technology and organization has reformed working methods, to suit consumer demand for freedom of choice as well as the need to maximize the use of equipment and facilities in manufacturing.”

In 1988 Håkan Frisinger was awarded an honorary doctorate from Chalmers for his “innovative way of systematically using his extensive experience with the many facets of industrial processes.” He also led the funding campaign Build a Better Future with Chalmers that raised close to 350 million Swedish crowns for investments in environmental and bio-technology and strengthened bonds between Chalmers and the private sector.

The pensioner that returned

Håkan Frisinger retired from Volvo in 1987, at the age of 59. He and Annakarin moved to France and later Lausanne, and Frisinger accepted board seats in a number of Swedish companies, including IKEA’s Ingka Group.

But Frisinger’s sojourn away from Volvo wasn’t very long this time either. In December 1993 Frisinger returned as a Member of the Board when Pehr. G. Gyllenhammar left the board, and in 1997 he replaced the deceased Bert-Olof Svanhom as Chairman of the Board of Directors. Frisinger didn’t step down as Chairman of the Volvo Board (and member of the Atlo and Iro boards) until 1999, after he had turned 70 and had worked almost exclusively for Volvo since he graduated from Chalmers.

The same year, Volvo’s Annual Shareholders Meeting voted to honor their retired board member by founding Håkan Frisinger’s Foundation for Transport Research. Frisinger himself was appointed Honorary Chairman. The rest of the board and its scientific advisory committee were the same as those for Volvo’s other research and education foundations.

Self-evident focus

The Swedish Research Council was asked to identify relevant fields of research for the new foundation.

“It was actually self-evident. Håkan had dealt with transport issues essentially his entire life, close to industrial production, as a company leader, and in the later years of his career with Volvo with a corporate-wide perspective. And always with a genuinely broad interest,” said Arne Wittlöv who was VREF’s Chairman at the time.

The first years’ stipends were awarded at a lunch in Volvo’s offices.

“Håkan was always very interested, appreciated meeting stipend recipients and asking about and discussing their work. He usually also made a very personal speech to the awardees, often with a reflection or an anecdote from his many years of experience. I think that everyone appreciated the award ceremonies. They were interesting and open conversations,” said Wittlöv.

Warm and engaged

Later, the format for awarding the stipends was changed, allowing recipients to organize a seminar and to invite interesting practitioners in their field.

Jonas Sjöberg and Håkan Frisinger

Photo: AnnaLisa Foto

“These were also valued affairs and Håkan engaged with every stipend recipient. That’s how I remember Håkan – he was a warm person with a true interest in others,” said Fabienne Niklasson, the Administrative Secretary at VREF who was in contact with Frisinger annually in connection with all of the stipend award ceremonies since 2005. “The last time Håkan Frisinger attended a stipend award ceremony he was 90 years old and was honored by the participants with flowers and tributes, which brought him to tears.”

The stipend recipient that year was Professor Jonas Sjöberg from Chalmers.

“In 2017 I received Håkan Frisinger’s stipend for my transport research on autonomous and safe vehicles. It was a very nice awards ceremony in the end of May, and Håkan attended. He hadn’t done so the past few years, but now he was healthy and full of energy. I had never met him before and never had the opportunity again, but that one time was enough to leave a lasting and impressive impression of him. The presentation that I made on my research was not at all boring for him. He had both questions and comments that were, for a researcher, very stimulating. After the presentation he just said “continue, do more things like this,” and that is what I am trying to do now. It must have been good for Volvo to have a leader that inspired such enthusiasm,” said Jonas Sjöberg.

A direction that has made a difference

In VREF’s Board minutes from 2000, one can read that the year’s research funding applications were a testimony to the fact that “the Board’s new focus on ‘Future Urban Transport’ was right.”

“The continuous growth of major cities at a global level makes this field of research, which was specified and has been successively refined by the Board, responsive to a growing demand for knowledge.”

Today – 22 years later – the Håkan Frisinger Award has been granted 18 times, to 19 recipients. The stipend recipients have been selected based on a broad understanding of the field of transportation research, which includes engineering, the natural, social and behavioral sciences and the humanities, with a diversity of thematic profiles such as but not limited to: vehicle and fuel technologies; transportation systems and planning; end-user and consumer needs, perspectives and behavior; environmental impacts and climate change; and transport economics and efficiency. Researchers have been encouraged to apply interdisciplinary research methods and collaborate across scientific disciplines.

It is with great pride and humility that VREF continues to work in the spirit of Håkan Frisinger.