Saab History Interviews Former Saab Cars USA President, Dan Chasins

Posted on 24. Feb, 2009 by in 2000-2009, Norcross, Georgia

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Photo Credit: Saab Cars USA, Inc.

A few weeks ago, I managed to get the opportunity to interview Dan Chasins, the former President of Saab Cars, USA, Inc (2000-2002).

Today, Dan Chasins submitted the interview transcript so that I may share it with us here on Saab History. Some years back, November of 2001 to be precise, I had the pleasure meeting him for the first time at the Boston Auto Show. In 2009, much like before but over the phone, was another great time to hear about his career while the hours flew by.

A sincere thank you to Dan Chasins for his time and thoroughness in contributing this incredible interview for us here on Saab History.

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Saab History Interviews Former Saab USA President Dan Chasins

Sunday, February 15th, 2009 (1pm-4:30pm)

Saab History:
When and how did you end up working at Saab Cars, USA?

Chasins: I had an affinity for Saab prior to joining the company, starting with the ownership of a 1972 99, followed by a number of others, including a Sonett V4, 1990 900 SPG (the red one now in the SCUSA Heritage Collection) and others. I joined the company in late 1992 when I was offered the position as Director of Marketing. This came after a number of months’ discussion with Bill Kelly, Saab’s president at the time, who had taken over after Bob Sinclair. I was living in northern California at the time, and originally thought that I would be returning to the North East. I expected to be working in Orange, Connecticut, however I soon realized that the company was moving down to Norcross, Georgia. I started the job in Connecticut, but only for a few months, before a small team started up the operation in Georgia. Out of approximately 250 people who worked in Orange, Connecticut, only about 20 people both had the opportunity and made the choice to move to Norcross, Georgia. It was a wrenching experience, but the company had decided that it was needed in order to make a fresh start in the early nineties.

When I started with the company, I reported to Jan-Ã…ke Jonsson, who at that time was VP, Sales & Marketing in the U.S. Jan-Ã…ke, of course, is now the global head of Saab Automobile.

Saab History: What products did you end up having to market and how much of a challenge was it?

Chasins: The first product that I helped to launch, was the MY ’93 9000 CS in 1992 , which was the new body style for the 9000 model line. The biggest challenge in marketing this new product was that the existing owners really loved the unique look of the 900 hatchback…the car that was the iconic Saab. Up to that point, although the 9000 got high marks for its interior cabin, and for the amazing performance of the turbo version, its exterior design was viewed as somewhat generic and to many, the 9000 was not yet viewed as a pure expression of the Saab brand. With more aerodynamic styling, and other refinements, the CS evolution went on to become the most successful variant of the 9000, including the eventual introduction of the 9000 Aero.

The next major product I marketed along with my team at Saab Cars USA (SCUSA pronounced “Scuza” internally.), was the next generation MY ’94 900. This product was the first model that was jointly developed using an existing General Motors platform. The NG900 as many now referred to it, needed to be launched immediately due to pending safety legislation, environmental regulations and other innovations that Saab Automobile needed to deploy in order to be competitive. The original 900 platform had its origin in the 99, and had been in production for over 20 years in all its variations—much longer than the offerings from other European carmakers at the time.

Saab History: What advertising programs were you responsible for, why did they change, which ones did you think were most effective and which one(s) did you like the most personally?

Chasins: When I came on board, Saab’s ad agency (Angotti, Thomas, Hedge), were continuing the “We Don’t Make Compromises, We Make Saabs” campaign. While this campaign was good for the time, it began to be difficult to use with the global marketing initiatives that were just starting to be coordinated by Saab Automobile AB, and we had a push to try to address this.

We believed that a new campaign was needed that would describe and appeal to the psyche of the consumers who chose Saab. The campaign was quite literal–and in fact was appropriately titled “Heart, Mind, & Conscience”, reflecting the multi-faceted nature of the Saab brand and the different aspects of the brand’s appeal. We continued with Angotti, Thomas, Hedge as we had good relationships with them already, they were a very talented agency, and I was looking for continuity. While we were focusing on new beginnings, some consistency was necessary for our recently relocated company. We ran this campaign for our 900 as well as NG900 models until 1995 until we decided to freshen the campaign again.

Starting in mid-1994, the next major campaign for Saab in the U.S started to take shape. The “Find Your Own Road” campaign was spearheaded by Dave Krysiek, who succeeded me as Director of Marketing at SCUSA and which ran until late 1996. It was in my opinion, one of the best campaigns Saab Cars USA has ever done, and it was certainly among the most memorable. The management team at Saab Automobile however, were not so pleased with it and SCUSA had a lot of pushback. It was a campaign that, while memorable, was also polarizing. The highly graphic elements, and the animation used in TV spots did not seem to translate well outside the north American market. (Eventually in 1997, Saab Automobile AB decided to launch their first truly global advertising campaign and since Saab Cars USA was a wholly owned subsidiary, the U.S. adopted their campaign known as the Saab “VS.” campaign. ).

By 1994, Jim Crumlish had taken over as the new President of Saab Cars USA. Crumlish, back from working as head of finance at Saab Automobile AB in Trollhättan, Sweden, encouraged me to take a new opportunity at Saab Automobile AB. After some consideration, I decided to take advantage of the offer, moving my family overseas, and renting out our house in Atlanta. Taking this “ex-pat” assignment was one of the best experiences both professionally and personally that I have ever had. I loved living and working in Sweden, and even learned a bit of Swedish. It was also exciting to be the first American to manage a car project for the company, as well as being the first person from one of Saab’s export markets to take on a role of this kind. It was part of a conscious effort on the part of Saab to bring in more “voice of the customer” and to get a better feel for the requirements of different markets that are important to Saab.

Saab History: What was the new position that you would be working in at Saab Automobile AB in Trollhättan?

Chasins: The position was actually three, over a period of time. My first position was to focus on the 2nd vehicle for the new 9-5 range, which turned out to be the 9-5 Sportwagon, as Program Manager. I was responsible for working with the engineers and designers to create the product profile and design of the second 9-5 variant.

There was a lot of discussion on whether or not we should have created a 9-5 hatchback, but we believed we needed two more distinct models. It was already established that the first variant was a sedan, and so the effort was to avoid too much overlap in the two concepts. This had been a problem with the 9000 CD and CS variants. With limited resources and a plan that only allowed for two variants on the platform, it was clear that they had to be as distinct as possible. Since all-wheel drive was not available, due to earlier trade-offs in the platform architecture, we decided to augment versatility and flexibility in as many ways as possible in order to meet its utilitarian objectives. Innovations including the sliding load floor, cargo tracks and nets, , under-hatch lighting, integrated child seats and others are examples of features that were designed to set the sportwagon apart from other offerings.

While a hatch was advocated by some, and I personally liked the hatchbacks, it was not clear that a hatch was the right entrant for the mid-size segment competing with cars like the BMW 5 series, and the Audi A6. In the end, I think the 9-5 wagon, Saab’s first wagon in over 20 years at the time, turned out to be one of the sportiest and most attractive wagons ever offered. It provided Saab’s traditional performance and driving experience, with a maximum amount of space and utility. Market acceptance around the world showed that we were on target. But I must admit the biggest loss was AWD, which would have given another major feature and greater unit volume for the car. Although it was originally planned on being included in the 9-5 platform, the architecture shared with GME had eliminated AWD capability by the time the 9-5 wagon was specified and it wasn’t possible to resurrect it.

Saab History: What did the next position entail?

Chasins: The second position involved me working side-by-side with Jan-Ã…ke Jonsson who had earlier returned to Sweden. I was asked to take the role as the global Business Unit Director for the small platforms, the NG900 and 9-3 models, while Jan-Ã…ke worked on the 9000 and 9-5 platforms. To take this position, I needed to extend my stay in Sweden, which my family happily accepted. The job entailed taking responsibility for the global commercial management for each product platform, including things such as volume planning, allocation of production capacity for different markets, oversight of pricing as well as representing the markets in new program planning.

It was great working with Jan-Åke, especially given our previous experience together in Norcross. One of the highlights for my group was laying the groundwork along with the UK’s TRW group for the high performance 9-3 Viggen, which first came out as a prototype known as the 900 Concept Coupe. Another project that was fun was putting together the second Talladega challenge event, using the NG 900 this time. The twist that was new for this event—and one that was a little controversial and not without some risks—was the decision to invite journalists to pilot the vehicles in shifts in the attempt to beat speed and durability records. The event was a big success and generated a lot of needed publicity for the 900, showing what the car was capable of achieving. It also provided the rationale for the special Talladega-badged variant of the 900 prior to the 9-3 launch.

For my third assignment in Sweden, I was asked by Bob Hendry, the CEO of Saab Automobile at this time, to stay another year to take on another role, bringing my stay from an original contract of two years to three and now four. This last position began in 1997, when GME started the Vehicle Line Executive System or VLE system for short. My title in this new capacity was the Vehicle Line Executive, taking over JAJ’s responsibility for the 9-5 as he moved over to Russelheim, Germany. I was also Saab’s point person for the transition to the vehicle line concept, which created one position (VLE) to oversee both the commercial aspects of the platform and also the product development and integration into production. So I now had oversight for both the 9-5 and 9-5 wagon from prototyping until launch. I felt very lucky to have this experience, especially getting back to the 9-5 program in time to see the 9-5 wagon make its world debut, that was great!

Saab History: Having the ability to work that closely with the products, especially the 9-5, what did you understand that the original life-cycle of that product was to be?

Chasins: The original product life-cycle of the 9-5 was planned at being 6 to 8 years max. The 2002 refresh of the 9-5 at 4 years was the last refresh planned and that was supposed to carry the product another two more. As we know, some plans don’t always work out as scheduled due to market conditions, research & development budgets, and other variables.

Saab History: As you may know, the next generation Saab 9-5, originally planned to debut as an MY ’06, now a MY ’10, will come with all-wheel drive (XWD). Do you think that this technology, now debuting a whole 12 years later in the next generation 9-5, is too late for Saab Automobile AB?

Chasins: I don’t think it is ever too late to offer innovative new features, or features that increase customer acceptance and open new niches. Not having the details about this vehicle, it’s hard to really speculate, but what I can say is that in Sweden, front-wheel drive worked because drivers used the proper size and specifications for their tires, particularly in the winter when they swapped both wheels and tires for true winter tires. It can be argued that in 99% of conditions, with proper tires and front wheel drive, you can go about anywhere. It’s also plenty possible to get stuck with AWD! It is also true that AWD systems inevitably carry more weight and use more fuel…all the time, not just in conditions where AWD is really a help. Having said that, I am still a fan of AWD systems, not just for traction but also for handling and performance.

It’s also important for a brand like Saab to be aware of what’s offered in the competitive marketplace, and what customers think. Saab competes with many other brands offering various AWD systems, such as Audi, Subaru, BMW, Mercedes and even Jaguar. So Saab needs to compete in this market and recognize the real and the perceived benefits of AWD to customers. The safety, handling and performance of a vehicle with all-wheel drive may be enhanced in real world conditions, and customers are clearly willing to pay for it.

Saab History: While you wrapped up this great opportunity over the four years in Sweden, what were your plans, to continue with Saab Automobile in Sweden, Saab Cars USA or elsewhere in GM?

Chasins: As you know, I got bitten by the Saab bug even prior to working with Saab, so I looked for new opportunities to continue working with Saab, this time, back in the United States with Saab Cars USA. In April of 1998, I took a new position offered to me as Vice President of Product Programs & Customer Satisfaction, back at SCUSA in Norcross, Georgia.

In this job, I worked on product planning, development, research, customer and dealer-wide relations as well as much work around the launch of the 9-5, and 9-5 Wagon in North America. This position was especially interesting, given all of my work back in Sweden over the years developing these vehicles to bring to market. I was very fortunate to follow the product along its development process and finally interact with the customers in many capacities. From helping to boost our ratings in J.D. Power, Consumer Reports, the media, improving Saab’s residual values, customer perception to product support, I got to see it all. I even worked very close to our call center, and often found myself writing letters and making phone calls to customers if need be. While working at Saab Cars USA in this role, I collaborated with SCUSA’s president, Joel Manby, whom you’ve previously interviewed. Joel also personally responded to some of the calls and letters that sometimes escalated up the chain of command. Our in-sourced call center was very efficient, and very helpful to me and my staff as they were literally just a few steps away from me, so there were no communication breakdowns in customer dialog. Our focus was to not only respond to issues and questions in a timely manner, but to actually resolve them. In addition to working with customers, I also worked with dealer training, which was a program that leveraged some of Joel’s experience with the Saturn brand’s successes.

Saab History: I understand you managed to move on from this capacity to be provided a unique opportunity to lead Saab in the United States as President of Saab Cars, USA, Inc. for a period of time.

Chasins: Yes, in April of 2000, I was tapped by Manby, as his successor and took the position as President of Saab Cars, USA, Inc. I was sorry to see Joel go, as he was a loss to Saab and to GM, and I worked very well together with him. But I understood and respected his decision to pursue a great opportunity in the internet space. As it unfolded for me, the priority was clear: get ready for the launch of the all new 9-3 Sport Sedan by reversing the “push” of incentives and discounted leases, to a “pull” strategy by building increased underlying demand and brand value, raising residuals, and growing sales with the existing product range.

Saab History:
What were some of the products you worked with and other highlights of this experience?

Chasins: The first big event was actually a concept car, the 9-X. While no one knows if the debut on September 11th, 2001, did anything negative to its exposure, we did eventually see positive feedback from the press on this unique concept vehicle. What is interesting is that due to having experience working with Saab Automobile AB in Sweden, I did have a good relationship with AB management in marketing, product development, and design, which I think helped the US market to be heard in key decisions affecting the brand. One thing that Michael Mauer did that I appreciated was that he brought Saab design, and his department to the forefront. Making Saab design more outspoken and expressive was a positive change from the design approach of earlier years.

The second vehicle was the freshened 9-5, that we launched in 2001 as a 2002 model. I recall you participated in that launch in Boston, Massachusetts when we had our press conference. We would normally have expected the 9-5 to continue for a few more years before being replaced by an all new vehicle, but as you know the 9-5 has continued, with additional updates, up to today.

Following this vehicle, we launched the 9-3x Concept Car at the Detroit Auto Show, to signify the new design direction for the new 9-3 product range.
Immediately following this concept car debut, in June of 2002 in Stockholm, Sweden, we launched the MY ’03 Saab 9-3 Sport Sedan. This milestone launch was one of the most critical and successful for Saab in the U.S. For the first time in many years, we took the dealers to Sweden, something that I see as critical to do from time to time. The launch included test driving opportunities, and a full immersion in the Saab brand, its culture and its mission. It was really a time of celebration for all of Saab and the launch of one of the best Saabs ever. U.S. dealers received the car very well, and returned to the states very enthusiastic about the company’s direction.
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This year was also pivotal for the Saab community as it meant the end of the hatchback in the 9-3 series, not to be continued. The rationale was that in order to grow the brand, we needed to appeal to a broader market, which meant eliminating a design feature that seemed to only appeal to an existing customer base. Like many others, I had a strong feeling for the hatchback. But AB’s analysis showed that in Saab’s competitive segment, greater volume could be achieved with a different mix of variants, starting with a sedan configuration. I think that the success of the sport sedan, and later on, Saab’s iconic 9-3 convertible showed that it was the right choice.

Saab History: There were numerous innovations that were introduced at this time, but what happened to the two innovations that never saw the light of day, those being the SVC & SCC engine concepts?

Chasins: I can tell you that they were more than just concepts on paper. I have personally experienced driving a prototype with the SVC engine and it was an impressive drive. As I understand it, the reasons they were not developed further involved costs, but also the risks inherent in any radical new technology. At the time Saab had just become the designated center of expertise for GM in charged engine technologies, and development resources were at a premium.

Saab History: In terms of advertising and promotions during the time, what were some of the most memorable and successful programs?

Chasins: I recall a lot of activities we did, including the successful “People Who Test Drive a Saab, Usually Buy One” tactical campaign that ran through my time as President. The dealerships liked this a lot and it significantly increased the customer traffic at the stores.

While it was easier to measure advertising through impressions, it was rather difficult to measure promotions. Some of our promotions included the Saab & Gary Fisher bicycle program that ran through my tenure that even featured a 9-5 Wagon Gary Fisher edition. That one that was near and dear to my heart since I spent so much time in the wagon’s development. We also had the pet accessories program that I worked on with Elke Martin in collaboration with the Humane Society, and that was a real hit. The Saab RallyCross series that was a hit in Sweden, had limited exposure here in the United States. But Per Eklund’s Pikes Peak Challenge gave us some good exposure at very little cost to SCUSA. In that situation, Eklund’s team was basically economically self-sufficient with some Swedish sponsors, so all Saab needed to do was provide media and press support for the event and some other technical expertise at the factory. These kinds of arrangements were looked at as “one offs”. If we had been approached for a fully-funded race or rally program, we would not have had the funding to pull it off, directing the majority of our resources to traditional advertising and promotion, as well as various dealer support programs.

Saab History: In May of 2001, the Martin Agency was dropped in favor of Lowe Worldwide in New York, why the change of ad agencies if things were working well with the existing campaign?

Chasins: This change took place due to the Martin Agency being owned by IPG, the same company that owned Lowe Worldwide. The transition was made for efficiencies and better communication between Saab Cars, USA & Saab Automobile AB, who used the Lowe ad agency globally and in other markets around the world.

Saab History: I see that you left Saab Cars, USA, Inc. in September of 2002, what sparked the decision to move on, and more specifically to depart the entire Saab Automobile community altogether?

Chasins: In the fall of 2002, General Motors started to take steps to consolidate the U.S. Saab operations with GM North American Operations.
The chain of command had historically been that SCUSA was a wholly owned subsidiary of Saab Automobile AB. And Saab Automobile AB in turn was part of General Motors Europe. This chain of command was specific to the Saab situation, and meant that Saab was the only GM brand in the states, not managed by GM’s north American operations. Saab was a special case within General Motors, since it was and is the only brand sold in all the world’s major markets. But under GM’s new approach, U.S. Saab operations were on a path to be integrated with GM NAO (North American Operations). In theory, this would allow Saab access to a variety of GM’s resources and experience in the U.S. market. Ultimately, this lead to the closure of the SCUSA facility in Georgia, and to reconfiguring Saab in the U.S. as a brand team at GM’s headquarters in Detroit. The first step in the process was the appointment of Debra Kelly-Ennis as president of Saab Cars USA, and I handed the reins over to her in November of 2002.

After the transition, I continued to work out of the Norcross office as an employee of Saab Automobile in Sweden to manage the startup of the Saab 9-2x project with Subaru. The Saab 9-2x, was Saab Automobile’s first attempt at bringing all-wheel drive to the product portfolio utilizing the synergies with the Subaru brand. At the time, GM had an ownership stake in Subaru. This product was originally planned to be launched in markets besides the United States, but it was eventually only launched here. I worked in this capacity for a few months, traveling between Japan and Sweden, getting the project off the ground.

In December, Peter Augustsson offered me the opportunity to relocate again with my family to Sweden to take a position as the director of global product portfolio planning. At this point, unlike 8 years earlier, my two children were older and about to enter high school, and my wife and I felt it was not a time when we could be on foreign assignment again. So, I respectfully declined the offer and after all was said and done over the course of two more months, I separated from Saab Automobile after 11 great years.

chasins.jpgI have to say, I loved being associated with the Saab brand. It got under my skin and I still carry the torch for Saab. I learned a lot during my time with the company, and have a lot of fond memories as well as accomplishments that I am proud of. We still own a 9-5 wagon that I will probably never let go. Right now, in late February 2009, Saab has just filed for reorganization in Sweden, to position itself for a spin-off from GM. I am sure anyone who reads this interview will join me in pulling for Saab to succeed in this new chapter of its history!

Dan Chasins

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One Response to “Saab History Interviews Former Saab Cars USA President, Dan Chasins”

  1. Yuuma

    23. Apr, 2014

    Hey!! Wellcome my dear. It’s a pleasure to have you again here on my ceomutpr 😉 Show us your wonderful photos from your vacation. thanks for your comment. We miss you

    Reply to this comment

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