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A talk with the top exec at Mack Trucks

November 26, 2006|by BOB MAGINNIS

It has been two years since Sten-ke Aronsson came to Hagerstown from Sweden to make sure that the multi-million-dollar marriage between Mack Trucks and Volvo is a happy and productive partnership.

But when Aronsson received the Hasgerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce's 2006 award for Business Person of the Year, I realized how little I knew about the man who now heads one of Washington County's most important industries.

In contrast to Mack leaders of the past - John Bogdanski and Ross Rhoads, for example - Aronsson has been very much in the background.

That's because he's been busy overseeing the $150 million update of the Mack Trucks plant on Hagerstown's Pennsylvania Avenue.

The plant is adding computerized assembly line, robotics and a $35 million engine development laboratory.

When I sat down in his office recently, it seemed a bit warm. Aronsson gestured at the parking lot below, where four ventilating units, each as large as a Mack dump truck, were to be installed that very night.

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To me, although Aronsson has a slight physical resemblance to former Chrysler CEO Lee Iacocca, he's not your typical American executive. Although he seems proud - with one exception - of the company's performance, he was quick to share credit for the accomplishments of his company. And, he did not brag, as if that would be in bad taste.

Aronsson and his wife came to Hagerstown in May 2004 directly from Gteborg, the city where Volvo is headquarted and about 80 miles from the town where he grew up.

He said his interest in all things automotive was "not anything I got with mother's milk."

Instead it developed during his time in the military, in which it is compulsory for all young Swedish men to serve two years.

"In the beginning, I was more focused on manufacturing, then later on general management," he said.

Before coming to Volvo, he worked for SKF, the largest manufacturer of bearsing in the world and for 14 years with Saab-Scania AB.

Volvo acquired Mack in 2001 and Aronsson said he was involved in deciding where in America Vovlo would locate powertrain operations.

"I was here five or 10 times in advance of my transfer, so I was aware of what Hagerstown was," he said.

Coming from Sweden to America, have your experiences been pleasant or unpleasant?

"I will mainly say it has been a very positive experience," he said.

· How is it different here than in Sweden?

"Gteborg is a much bigger city of about 500,000, but that's not important when you have a challenging job. Hagerstown is located in an area that if you want to go to a bigger city, you can," he said.

· Was it a difficult move for your family?

"It was easy. It was just me wife and me. We have grown children, 50 percent of them in Sweden and 50 percent in the U.S.," he said, adding that his daughter is a doctor at Hershey Medical Center, while his son remains in Gteborg.

· How easy was it for your wife to make the transition?

"After two to three months, she was very much assimilated, with new friend sand new contacts, We were well taken care of by open-minded friends and neighbors," he said.

· Is it tough to have your son so far away?

"Today the distances are not that long. In eight to 10 hours we can go from Washington-Dulles to Copenhagen and then 30 minutes to Gteborg," he said.

Business takes him back to Europe once every six weeks, he said.

· What do you miss most about Sweden?

"I miss the sea. I like the nature. I am very much of an outdoorsman. I miss the smell of fresh saltwater, good fish and seafood. And naturally, my wife and I have family and friends.

"The older you are, the harder it is. Naturally, you have your roots deep in Swedish soil," he said.

· What have you enjoyed most about the U.S.?

"We love to travel and learn. And I've had extremely positive contacts with neighbors and friends. They are fantastic, nice, open people who are understanding that we are very different," he said.

And then there is hunting, he said.

· What do you hunt in the U.S.?

"In the U.S., I've been hunting in two areas, for big game and small game," he said. He showed me a picture of an 1,800-pound bison he shot in Montana, where his son-in-law was born.

"I've also been to Yellowstone. I don't always need to pull the trigger on a firearm. I can also pull the trigger on a camera," he said.

· What other differences have you seen between Swedish life and American culture?

"One thing for sure is what you call coffee is brown water," he says with a laugh, comparing the difference between U.S. coffee and Swedish to the difference between low- and high- octane fuel. Fortunately, he said, his secretary has been able to order stronger, Swedish blends on the Internet.

· Was it easy to adjust to an American management style?

"When I arrived, I was the only non-American. From my side, it has been only positive experiences. Naturally, it took a few weeks for us to learn and know each other.

"For me, it was not a given that I understood ... to read the unwritten ..."

· Body language?

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