Hans Werthén – a verbal and sympathetic strategist

"The trick to doing business is being welcomed back," said Hans Werthén in 1991 when he appeared on the Swedish version of the TV show "This is your life." Werthén was known in Sweden primarily as a popular and successful president of Electrolux. What few TV viewers knew was that he was one of those who introduced TV in Sweden.

Hans Werthén was born in Ludvika in 1919. His parents were Frans and Mabel Werthén. Mabel was a businesswoman who sold pianos that she imported from Germany. According to Hans Werthén, this was the start of his interest in sales.

After receiving an engineering degree in electronics at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Werthén went on to take a master's degree. Thereafter, he worked from 1947 to 1956 on the development of television technology, which paved the way for the introduction of TV in Sweden. His achievements included designing Sweden's first color TV transmitter and establishing the country's first international TV link between Gothenburg and Copenhagen.

Hans Werthén's interest in TV began in the early 1940s. This interest derived from the great isolation that prevailed in the remote villages of his native province of Dalarna during his childhood. Radio was of tremendous importance in breaking this isolation. What would be possible with TV which could show news from the entire world?

From 1956 to 1959, Hans Werthén worked as vice president for Philips Swedish TV and radio production. Thereafter, he was employed by Ericsson as a director of production, becoming the company's first vice president in 1963. During his years at Ericsson, Hans Werthén made many important contributions in developing rational product development methods and expanding the company's production system.

When Electrolux chairman Ragnar Söderberg in the autumn of 1966 requested a talk with him, Hans Werthén believed that they were to discuss a merger of Asea's and Ericsson's cable operations. Instead, he was offered the position of president of Electrolux. The initiative for this offer had been taken by Marcus Wallenberg.

In 1967, Hans Werthén took over as president of Electrolux. At this time, the company's financial position was weak. The company lacked ability for technical innovation and was considered to have stagnated. Werthén's assessment was that Electrolux was too small in relation to its international competitors yet too big to remain in a limited niche market. Electrolux needed to become much larger to be competitive.

The new strategy was based on expansion through company acquisitions and diversification. There would be more than 200 company acquisitions over slightly more than 20 years. Hans Werthén was often personally involved as a strategist and negotiator when new companies were incorporated into Electrolux. The result of this acquisition strategy was that Electrolux attained eight times greater sales with even greater profitability.

Hans Werthén developed what was called the Lux culture. This was characterized by sound business practices, a market focus, rapid decision making and very little bureaucracy. He also made it clear to everyone that he was always available if someone wanted to talk. In Swedish industry, there were few other company presidents who answered the phone themselves.

When Hans Werthén resigned as president of Electrolux in 1974, he worked as chairman of the company up until 1991, although he successively reduced his working hours during the 1980s.

Hans Werthén returned to Ericsson in 1981, when he was appointed the company chairman, a post that he was to retain until 1990. In the mid-1980s, Ericsson had major problems with Ericsson Information Systems, which led to criticism of Ericsson president Björn Svedberg. Svedberg has related how Werthén strongly supported him in the media but that the chairman behind the scenes could be a tough critic. When the criticism had been delivered, however, a constructive discussion always followed.

Hans Werthén was a sympathetic and professionally demanding chairman, who was a master at leading the board's work. Through his witty humor, he could create a fantastic working climate even during periods filled with problems. "When things are going well, you don't need prestige, and when they're going badly, you can't afford prestige", was one of his many clever sayings.

Together, Hans Werthén and Björn Svedberg introduced a leadership style within Ericsson that was based on delegation of authority and follow-ups and which was very different from the more hierarchical leadership style that had prevailed previously.

Hans Werthén passed away in the beginning of 2000.

Author: David Leidenborg

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1 comment
  • Girl with Dragon Tattoo

    by JoAn

    It is a fascinating read that directed my attention to Hans Werthen, since Electrolux is making a come back in USA.

    Hans seems like he was a terrific leader and entrepreneur. We need more like him today to resolve the global financial disaster.