Volvo executive ready to roll From China to S.C., Fjording here to foster collaborative effort at new Berkeley car plant

Katarina Fjording, Volvo vice president of purchasing and Manufacturing Americas speaks at Volvo's groundbreaking Friday afternoon. (Brad Nettles/Staff) 9/25/15

Katarina Fjording’s career has rarely taken her far from water.

Whether it’s Gothenburg, Sweden, as an executive with Volvo Cars, a stint with Ford Motor Co. near Chicago’s Lake Michigan or now, as Volvo’s vice president of purchasing and manufacturing for the Americas in the Charleston region, Fjording says she’s lucky to have lived most of her life near the oceans and waterways that inspire her.

“I think I’m downplaying it if I say I’m fixated by the ocean,” said Fjording, a native of Sweden’s west coast who will oversee construction and then manufacturing at Volvo’s campus in Berkeley County.

“The ocean is so powerful, it’s life-giving,” Fjording said. “For me, it’s a sense of freedom. If I look at the ocean, it can wash away just about anything. It’s very soothing for me.”

No wonder, then, that Fjording is looking for a home along the Lowcountry coast after having spent the past three years building Volvo’s three manufacturing sites in China.

“I’ve been craving to be close and able to interact with the ocean on a regular basis,” she said. “In Shanghai, the oceanfront wasn’t accessible.”

Fjording was officially named director of the Berkeley County plant during a groundbreaking ceremony last week, but she’s been commuting from Sweden — spending two-week stretches in Charleston at a time — for months now. Just as she did in China, Fjording will build the Berkeley County site from the ground up.

When the first car rolls off the assembly line in 2018, the $500 million facility will employ about 2,000 workers and produce 100,000 vehicles per year. There’s room to double production — and employment — if the market is strong enough.

The plant is Volvo’s attempt to rebrand its image in the United States, where it has lost market share to other luxury automakers such as BMW and Mercedes.

“This is a major step for Volvo,” Lex Kerssemakers, president and CEO of Volvo Cars North America, told The Post and Courier earlier this year. “We are celebrating our 60th anniversary in the United States. (It) is an extremely important market for us and putting a factory here is literally a commitment from our side to another 60 years.”

Fjording was part of the negotiations when Volvo was trying to decide whether to put that commitment in South Carolina or Georgia. She said she’s happy the company picked the Charleston region.

“I like a lot of things about this area,” Fjording said. “Of course, people are extremely friendly and courteous, but they are also genuinely welcoming.”

Earlier this month, Fjording said, she and a colleague were getting out of their Volvo after parking along a Charleston street and a passing firefighter heard them speaking in Swedish.

“He asked, ‘Are you from Volvo?,’ ” Fjording said. “I told him yes and he said, ‘We’re so excited you’re coming’. It’s everywhere in the community. People are extremely welcoming.”

She’s also excited to become a part of the Charleston region’s vibrant business culture.

“Everyone seems to be very business forward, entrepreneurial, solution oriented,” Fjording said. “It’s exciting to know you’re going to be part of an area where people are really looking to make things happen.”

The move from China to Charleston promises to present numerous cultural differences.

“In China, we employed a lot of people who may not have ever been in a car,” Fjording said. “That’s both good and bad. They are quite good students. They did not have any preconception of the vehicle. When you’re in a more mature area, both in Europe and here, people are like, ‘Yeah, I’ve worked on cars since I was 16, I know how to do this.’ ”

Her management philosophy will remain unchanged regardless of the location.

“I think it’s important to get people involved,” she said. “People will feel better about their jobs if you do that. It gives people a sense of ownership, that your job is more important than just having someone tell you what to do.”

That kind of interaction was difficult for some of Volvo’s workers in China, at least in the beginning.

“In China, you don’t really speak up to authorities,” Fjording said. “You don’t openly question things, and we encourage that in our (company’s) culture. We believe if our teammates and operators speak up and question things they see, we can find issues earlier and we all become better together.”

One of the ways Fjording fostered that kind of interaction in China was through a system in which employees could pull a cord that stopped production if they had a question or noticed a problem. When that cord was pulled, music would start playing through a loudspeaker to alert other workers that a teammate needed help. Each part of the production line got to choose their own music. So, if Bruce Springsteen started to play, for example, everyone knew where the problem was located.

Fjording said she plans to have the same system at the Berkeley County plant.

“It’s great because it teaches people to ask for help and to fix issues on time,” Fjording said, recalling a time when a visitor to one of the plants in China questioned the practice. “I told him this is a good thing. It means people are asking for help rather than hiding the fact that they are not fully trained.”

The six years Fjording spent with Ford in the Midwest — developing the interiors for two vehicles following Ford’s purchase of Volvo Cars in 2000 — taught her a lot about American culture and work ethic, although Fjording admits “the U.S. is a big country and just because we know something about the Midwest doesn’t mean it applies here.”

Ford sold Volvo Cars to China-based Geely Holding Group in 2009, although the carmaker’s headquarters remain in Sweden.

Fjording said her biggest challenge at this point is meeting Volvo’s tight schedule for completion of the Berkeley County facility.

“Weather always plays a big part before you have a weather-tight building to work in,” Fjording said of the site, which was a muddy mess during last week’s groundbreaking following heavy rain the night before. It isn’t until the building is up and the machinery is in place that Fjording said she fully realizes the excitement of what she’s doing.

“When you start running the process and see that it’s working, it’s a very exciting stage,” she said. “It becomes more real.”

Being in South Carolina also gives Fjording the chance to pursue a pair of lifelong interests — sailing and hunting. Fjording took part in competitive sailboat racing competitions while in Chicago and said she wants to find similar opportunities in Charleston. She won’t lack for hunting opportunities — during Volvo’s official announcement of the Berkeley County plant in May, Fjording said she received “enough invitations to go hunting every day for the next three years.”

A deer hunter, Fjording recalls a time when her love of the sport converged with her passion for Volvo. It was during her Ford days when a colleague took her to the woods in northern Michigan to hunt whitetail deer.

“Late in the day, out of the corner of my eye I see this goat coming,” Fjording said. “Just as I was aiming, I saw a big buck and I said, ‘OK, I’ll take him.’ ”

Having driven her Volvo XC70 into the woods, Fjording had no choice but to stuff the deer into the trunk. As she headed home, she stopped at one of the highway rest stops that had been converted to a deer-check station for the hunting season — a spot where state officials could measure deer and check them for disease.

“There were all these pickup trucks around and guys in checkered shirts with toothpicks in their mouths,” Fjording said. “And then they see this Volvo coming in and one of the guys walked up to my car and he said, “Ma’am, this is a deer station now, it’s not a rest area.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I know.’ And then he started yelling at the other guys, ‘Hey, this lady’s got a deer in a Volvo.’ So I opened up the trunk and there it was.”

It’s an example of how Fjording has managed to surprise — and succeed — in a male-dominated arena, whether it’s hunting for whitetail deer or running an automobile manufacturing facility.

“When I grew up, I competed a lot with boys, seeing who could run faster and climb higher,” she said. “So I don’t have an issue with that per se. I would be lying if I said I have not experienced a feeling of glass ceilings or things like that. But I let my work speak for itself and, in the long run, it seems to work.

“I do think it’s important for those of us who do get the chances and do go farther, that we are good role models,” Fjording added. “It’s not that we have to be more perfect than anyone else, but we do have more eyes on us. We have a certain level of responsibility about how we go about the business so that what we achieve is not diluted by suppressing our dignity for short-term gains. That wins respect in the end.”

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