Lex Kerssemakers drives Volvo

Lex Kerssemakers, CEO of Volvo Cars of North America, speaks during the September 2015 groundbreaking for the company's first U.S. automobile assembly plant, under construction near Ridgeville in Berkeley County.

Lex Kerssemakers didn’t change his work style when Volvo Cars picked him a little more than a year ago to lead the Swedish automaker’s resurgence in the United States.

Kerssemakers has always been first in the office and last to leave.

“I’ve always been an early bird,” Kerssemakers said. “I love to be early. In the morning, I try to tackle the conversations with Europe, and then you have the rest of the day to focus on the U.S. and South America.”

If the new job has changed his work habits in any way, it’s in the amount of frequent-flyer miles he accumulates.

“The United States is so amazingly big. I’m spending a lot more time traveling,” said Kerssemakers, who got his start with Volvo in 1983 as a purchasing manager and now oversees operations in North and South America, including construction of the company’s first U.S. manufacturing plant in Berkeley County. The first S60 sedan is scheduled to roll off the assembly line at that campus near Ridgeville in 2018.

Kerssemakers makes at least two cross-country trips each week and has an intercontinental flight at least once a month. It’s a lot of travel, but an important part of the job, he said.

“In the end, we are a people business,” Kerssemakers said. “Meeting people, looking people in the eyes and connecting. We have technology like video meetings, and that’s very good, but sometimes when we have intense discussions with a retailer about investments or whatever, I want to be there. I want to show that we are committed.”

That type of commitment helped Volvo record a 24.3 percent increase in U.S. sales in 2015 — 70,047 vehicles including an all-new XC90 sport-utility vehicle that was named Motor Trend magazine’s SUV of the year.

Sales through March of this year are up another 19.2 percent as Volvo closes in on its goal of six-figure annual sales in the U.S., something it hasn’t achieved since 2007.

Kerssemakers took time during the recent Volvo Car Open tennis tournament on Daniel Island to talk with The Post and Courier. The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: This is the first year Volvo has sponsored the Volvo Car Open tennis tournament here in Charleston. What are your thoughts on the tournament so far?

A: Actually, it’s been very good. The Volvo brand is big, but we want to be intimate, connect with the customers and dialog with the customers one-to-one. When you see this fantastic, charming stadium and it’s all relaxed and intimate, it fits us perfectly.

Q: There has been quite a resurgence for Volvo, with a 24.3 percent increase in car sales during the first year of your company’s concerted effort to regain a foothold in the U.S. market. Does that surprise you or is this where you expected to be at this point?

A: This is about where we had hoped to be, but we are very pleased with the progress. We developed a turnaround plan in the United States and there are three main drivers which made it possible for us to make this transformation. The first one, and these are not in order of priority, but the announcement of the factory in South Carolina has created such a trust, a confidence in people that Volvo is here to stay. It’s a sign of commitment. You build a factory for 50 or 60 years, so we’re not going away.

Secondly, we showed all of our retailers in the United States the journey that we are going to make between 2015 and 2020. We showed them in all transparency all of the products we’re going to do and how we are going to market them, just to create confidence that Volvo is back on track after six rather low years. Our retailers started to realize, ‘OK, this is what’s coming so I also need to do a few things’. They started to invest and they started to train people. The retailers were feeling very positive, very energetic and supportive for our journey.

Then we had the introduction of the XC90, which was extremely well-received. We’ve gotten 80 awards in one year, it’s just absolutely amazing. And, suddenly, Volvo was from out of sight and out of mind to being back with a fantastic car, a factory in progress in South Carolina and a retailer network which is really pushing it and advertising again.

Q: You’ve been with Volvo for more than 30 years, both before and during the time Ford owned the brand and now under the ownership of billionaire Li Shufu’s Geely Holding Group Co. in China. How have things changed since Ford sold Volvo to Geely?

A: The Chinese said from the beginning that Volvo is Volvo and we need to leave Volvo alone. The Chinese owner realized he paid a lot of money for Volvo and if he wants to leverage his investment, he needs to let Volvo do what they are good at. So he leaves us alone. Of course, we have a governance process because he wants to know what we’re doing, but he really respected the knowledge in the company, respected the brand and the journey we are making and he gave us the time to do so. He gave us four years between 2010 and 2014 before the XC90 came. He has shown a lot of patience and the company is flourishing.

Q: So you knew from the start that it was going to take several years under Geely to turn things around?

A: Yes, we knew because we had to reinvent our product program. When Ford sold us, we knew that we couldn’t use their engines or platforms or any kind of synergy, so we had to reinvent everything. That’s the $11 billion investment in industrialization that Geely made. Of course, we kept everything going during those years, but we knew that the big bang would come with the XC90. Now, a big part of that is behind us and we can start to build the brand again.

Q: The Berkeley County plant will be the only one in the world to build the S60 sedan. How far along is the design of that vehicle? Any special features you can tell us about?

A; Engineering is doing the last fine-tuning. We know how the car will look and now engineering is doing the final work before it goes to manufacturing because we only have 1½ years from now before the first prototypes are going to be built in South Carolina. It’s a total new platform and a total new electrical infrastructure (from the previous S60).

Q: Volvo has said electric cars will play a big role in its future. Will we see electric versions of the S60 built here?

A; Most likely. It’s a little bit too early, but what we have decided is that for the coming years we strongly believe in plug-in hybrid technology — an electrical motor, in the front or in the rear, combined with a traditional combustion engine, where you can charge and elect to drive electrical or not for a certain range. ...We strongly believe in electrification. So much that if we want to sell 150,000 cars in the U.S., plug-in hybrid technology for the next four or five years will be the most common technology. And then, slowly, it will be taken over by electrical cars. So we are ready for it.

At the end, you can’t do this alone. You have us as a car maker, you have local and national authorities that need to support it (with environmental regulations) and then you have the customer which is willing to try it. If you have that triangle it works.

Q: Volvo’s current semi-autonomous technology can be limited by poorly painted lane markings. Such infrastructure problems are common nationwide, and especially in South Carolina. How big of a setback does that pose for autonomous driving?

A: It is solvable, but it requires a lot of extra technology in the car to detect poorly painted lines or whatever. Infrastructure is important, and that’s what we keep on stressing. Everybody realizes we have to do something, but we also realize you can’t change that overnight. An autonomous car will come. For us, it’s a tool to meet our safety vision, Vision 2020 (in which no deaths or serious injuries will occur in a new Volvo car).

Q: Volvo has embarked on the ‘Drive Me’ program where drivers in China will test 100 autonomous cars on highways, similar to another program you’ll be doing in Gothenburg, Sweden, to see how the cars react to real-life situations. What do you hope to learn?

A: It’s controlled learning for us and the authorities because everybody needs to gain experience with this. They need to know what they can do to improve the infrastructure and we need to know what problems can be solved. For example, we can put extra cameras in cars to detect poorly painted lines, but it might be an unnecessary expense, and we would like to avoid that expense if we can. It’s a long journey. We are not totally ready yet with autonomous drive, but we are learning.

Q: When was the last time you visited the Berkeley County plant, and what are your impressions on how it’s coming along?

A: Three weeks ago (mid-March) I was there. Every time I visit I see progress. The last time was three months ago. We’re driving pilings now, we’re building. It just goes so fast. So we are totally on track with an extremely tight deadline. Every time I’m here — and I wouldn’t say this if I didn’t mean, I just wouldn’t say anything — every time I’m here it just confirms that we picked the right state. Every time we need something, we get support. It’s not about money. It’s about people. It’s about how people are prepared to help us. We stumble sometimes, and every time there is a reaching hand to help us out. Without that, it would be impossible to do the journey we are doing.

Reach David Wren at 843-937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren_