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Tryggve Holm CEO for Saabs record

Tryggve Holm - CEO during Saab´s record-setting years

6 min read

Few people are woven so intricately into the history of Bofors and Saab – and thus into the entire industrial fabric of Sweden – as Tryggve Holm. His father was the managing director of Bofors. He became an engineer at Bofors, CEO of Saab during the record-setting years of the 1950s and 1960s and ultimately chairman of the Swedish Employers Association SAF – and well as chairman of the Bofors board of directors!

Holm was a manager who commanded respect. He had a thunderous voice and a mind as sharp as a razor, but was close to the workers on the shop floor and was driven by a vision of trusting cooperation between all groups of employees within a company.

Holm was born in Kristinehamn in 1905 and grew up in the Bofors manor house. His father, Hans Theobald Holm, was managing director of Bofors in the years from 1920 to 1932. At that time the works had no hotel facilities and all official entertainment took place in the home.

“We were fully involved in business activities. The large house was very often full of Swedish and foreign guests. It wasn’t always appreciated by us as teenagers. But that’s how it was, we had to be involved”, said Holm when talking about his adolescence in an interview.

Swedish punch and lake trips

At Christmas, candles were made in the large kitchen. Holm senior brewed considerable quantities of punch and when Christmas lunch was served, all the family’s guests and the large number of domestic servants required to run the house and entertainments also took part. Everyone rode to the early morning Christmas service by horse and sleigh. The days between Christmas and New Year were spent going on outings, one of which would be to Lake Alkvettern where the Holm family had a holiday cottage.

But most of the time was taken up by intensive work. Holm gained insights into big business early on. In 1921 he spent a summer working as a gun filing apprentice on a Dutch mountain gun which was to be tested in competition with leading gun companies.

“I’d clearly been a good gun filer, because a few years after the test Bofors got its first really large order after the First World War. Bofors had made a breakthrough on the international market.”

But the 1920s was a time when Bofors was really put to the test. At Christmas 1928 Holm senior was on a business trip to Turkey. On Christmas Eve itself he managed to telegraph home to the family that Bofors had won the largest order ever for guns in competition with the French Schneider, Czech Skoda and British Vickers companies. It was a turning point in the company’s history.

Tryggve Holm CEO for Saabs record
Trygve Holm was a visionary who in 1953 started to launch Saab's electronics production, which later became Datasaab, and under his leadership, Saab was given the task of developing the aircraft 37 Viggen - at that time Sweden's largest defense project. Unknown photographer.

A trip to the USA

Holm junior now had his sights set on a career in iron and steel. In 1929 he took his examination as a mining engineer at KTH Royal Institute of Technology. After a short period at Bofors as a steel caster he travelled across the Atlantic to the USA with a scholarship to study at the Carnegie Institute of Technology and at the SKF Research Laboratory. He then continued on to Philadelphia and built equipment which measured the noise in ball bearings among other things.

It was in the USA that Holm became aware of a different attitude towards the working community and fewer hierarchies. In an interview he explained his thoughts in further detail:

“Cooperation at all levels can only be beneficial to the world of work and helps us to achieve a classless community in it. I would mention that in my youth I gained a deep impression of the USA in this respect – there have never been any class divisions there between different groups of employees, and I consider that they have fully achieved the ‘classless working community’. I have always considered this to be what we should strive to achieve and I think we are on the right path.”

Back on home ground

But Holm longed to return home to Sweden and in 1936, at the age of only 31, he was appointed manager of the steel plant at Bofors. Four years later another move took him to Linköping, where he took over as managing director of ASJ, Aktiebolaget Svenska Järnvägsverkstäderna. The previous managing director, Ragnar Wahrgren, had been appointed CEO of the new Saab.

At ASJ Holm succeeded in bringing home the contract to manufacture all the underground coaches ahead of the opening of the underground system in Stockholm in 1950.

It was in 1950 when Holm changed management positions in Linköping – from the old ASJ to the newcomer Saab. There he began by immediately outsourcing the production of the Scandia commercial aircraft to the Dutch to make room for the production of the Saab 29, Flygande Tunnan (Flying Barrel), at the factory in Linköping.

Tryggve Holm CEO for Saabs record
A proud CEO, Tryggve Holm, poses in front of Saab 95 and the Saab 35 Dragon in October 1959. Photo: Johansson / Thuresson.

CEO of Saab during the record-setting years

It was during Holm’s time as CEO, from 1950 to 1967, that Saab became a really major industrial force. He was a visionary who ensured Saab started to produce electronics in 1953 – later to become Datasaab – and under his management Saab was awarded the order to develop the Saab 37 Viggen (Thunderbolt), which was Sweden’s largest defence project at the time. He also encouraged the development of a missile programme in a collaboration between Saab and Bofors.

Holm was not just a visionary but also an astute businessman in relation to practical everyday issues. He negotiated several favourable commercial contracts such as a Swedish sole agency for Chrysler.

He was proud – in a slightly outmoded patriarchal way perhaps – of Saab’s skilled engineers and workers and introduced a number of incentive programmes that would justify further advancement. Quality was an important goal – it was Saab’s major competitive advantage – and Holm invested heavily in a quality inspection programme. During his time there was one quality inspector to every 16 employees.

After his time at Saab Holm became chairman of the Swedish Employers' Confederation, SAF. He also became a member of the Bofors board of directors in 1968 and the company’s new chairman of the board in 1974. In 1986 he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by the Faculty of Science and Engineering at Linköping University. Holm passed away on 18 October 1993.