Stråberg, Hans 1957–
President and chief executive officer, Electrolux
Education: Master's of Science degree.
Career: Swedish Embassy (Washington, D.C.), assistant to the technical attaché; Electrolux, 1983–1987, floor-care division manager; 1987–1995, global head of dishwasher and laundry engineering; 1995–1998, head of production and development of North American white-goods operations; 1998–2001, executive vice president of floor care and light appliances; 2001–2002, chief operating officer; 2002–, president and chief executive officer.
■ Hans Stråberg became president of the Swedish appliance-making company Electrolux in 2002 following nearly 20 years spent in engineering and managing the corporation's operations worldwide. He made a point of rationalizing the corporation's plethora of brand names: more than 50 different brands were made by the company when his term in office began, including Eureka, Frigidaire, Kelvinator, Kenmore, McCulloch, Tappan, WeedEater (in North America), Flymo (in Great Britain), and Husqvarna and Zanussi (in Europe). He launched a program to revitalize the company's own brand name, changing its advertising and bringing products marketed under the name Electrolux back to the United States for the first time since the 1960s, using it to market to upscale customers wanting high-end equipment on a level with competitors like Viking and SubZero. A hearty promoter of globalization, he also launched strong cost-control measures, closing inefficient factories and shifting production from traditional areas, such as Sweden, to take advantage of cheaper labor costs in Latin America, Eastern Europe, and Asia.
Stråberg's management philosophy drew on his vision of the historic aims of Electrolux. The company, he declared in
a 2004 address to stockholders, had a relatively simple aim: to make housework, yard work, and food preparation easier. "Electrolux," he said, "provides easy-to-use products that make life simpler and more enjoyable" (UK Whitegoods ). Stråberg proposed to return to the company's original vision, with the idea of making common household tasks both easier and more affordable by reducing manufacturing costs and pursuing high-technology solutions where appropriate. People whose diminishing amount of free time was being devoured by mind less household tasks, he stated, wanted machines that would reduce their labor load. "It is essential," he told a reporter for Dealerscope magazine, "to be guided by the wants and needs of consumers…. We all work for them" (October 2003).
FROM THE GROUND UP
With the exception of a short stint in a diplomatic post, as assistant to a technical attaché in Washington, D.C., Stråberg spent his entire professional career at Electrolux. The holder of degrees in both science and engineering, he started with the company in 1983 as a floor-care division manager. Four years later he was promoted to global head of dishwasher and laundry engineering. In 1995 he was promoted again, this time to the leadership of production and development of white goods in North America, headquartered in the United States. Three years later he became executive vice president of floor care and light appliances. In 2001 Stråberg became Electrolux's chief operating officer, and the following year he was promoted to president and chief executive officer.
The company Stråberg took over in 2002 had a long, proud history of creating and manufacturing labor-saving devices for world-wide markets. Axel Wenner-Gren created Electrolux in 1919 through the merger of two other Swedish appliance companies, Elektromekaniska and Lux. Wenner-Gren recognized the potential of the primitive, hugely expensive vacuum cleaners and refrigerators available in the 1920s, and he guided the corporation to develop new, more powerful appliances run by electric engines that would be affordable for ordinary people, but would also do their jobs more efficiently and cheaply.
The president of the company before Stråberg took the office, Michael Treschow, had begun refurbishing Electrolux's image even before Stråberg entered the highest ranks of the corporation. Like many other European firms, Electrolux had tried to protect itself from the fluctuations of the market economy—especially from the recession that hit Europe during the early 1990s—by buying shares in other businesses, some unrelated and others from competitors. Over time, however, those diverse interests interfered with Electrolux's ability to meet the needs of its customers. During his five-year tenure as president, Treschow began selling off the corporation's interests in some of those other companies and refocused Electrolux to concentrate on its core products: white goods, lawn and yard products, and professional-grade appliances for demanding users. Treschow's efforts raised Electrolux's profit margin two percentage points, to around 5 percent by 2001.
CUT TO THE CORE
Stråberg continued the trend of cost reduction begun by his predecessor, eliminating still more redundant factories and personnel. He also began moving production to locations where labor costs could be reduced. He told shareholders at the 2003 annual general meeting that he had begun moving production of some North American refrigerators from the United States to Mexico, on the grounds that Mexican production offered significant cost advantages. In Europe, he made the decision to move vacuum-cleaner production from Vastervik, Sweden, to Hungary—a tricky thing to do in Europe, where local labor unions wield strong political clout. Stråberg explained to shareholders that, although he sympathized with the concerns of labor and management at the plant, where he himself had been a manager early in his career, the cost savings were too great to be ignored. He also announced plans to open new plants in Hungary, Russia, Thailand, and Poland, continuing the globalization of an already global corporation. While Stråberg was shifting production to areas with cheaper labor costs, he was also retooling older factories to fit the needs of the modern, flexible appliance industry. The Vastervik factory, for instance, was reconfigured so that it could produce appliances based on a variety of different branded models with only a minimum number of changes.
At the same meeting Stråberg declared that the company would increase capital investment on new-product development, concentrating on high-end, high-tech appliances. Some of the new gadgets released by Electrolux in 2003 included an automatic lawnmower, a convertible trimmer and edger for lawn care, and a variety of kitchen appliances. The latter included a refrigerator with a built-in wine cooler (designed for the Chinese market), the Electrolux Molteni podium cooker for professional chefs, and a new stovetop produced as part of the Teppen Yaki model line. The great hit of the season, however, was the company's robotic vacuum cleaner, marketed in Europe under the name Trilobite. The Trilobite—named after an extinct invertebrate that is one of the most common fossils—was the first robotic vacuum cleaner developed and marketed specifically for home use. Although the vacuum was originally introduced in Europe in 2002, the 2003 version included significant upgrades, such as a sensor system that prevented it from falling down stairs. The robotic mower, first released in 2003 under the name Automower, was among the first outdoor appliances to be marketed specifically under the Elextrolux brand name.
The marketing of lawn products and other gadgets under the Electrolux name, Stråberg told company shareholders, was part of his attempt to make the corporate name the most recognizable of all the brand names owned by the company, "strongest global brand in the industry" (UK Whitegoods ). Succeeding in that goal, the company president argued, would give Electrolux a huge advantage over other appliance manufacturers because it would create strong global name-brand recognition. That in turn would give the company, in the words of a BusinessWeek contributor, "more bang for its buck" (September 22, 2002). In addition, reintroducing Electrolux into the United States was expected to attract upmarket buyers, for whom Electrolux suggested sleek European styling. At the same time, Stråberg pushed for programs that would promote the retention of long-term brand names in order to keep the corporation's more downscale customer base. For example, in July 2003 the company celebrated the 85th anniversary of its Frigidaire line of kitchen appliances, launching special dealer and customer promotions and searching for the longestrunning brand dealerships in the United States.
Despite his background in engineering Stråberg remained focused on the needs of customers as the primary aim of the business. Innovations alone, he pointed out, were pointless unless they met the needs of the people that were interested in the production. Research and development, he said, have to focus on the desires of the consumers. "My personal dream," he confided, "is a household machine that washes, irons and folds my shirts and then puts them away" Dealerscope, October 2003). In addition to his duties at Electrolux, Stråberg served as a board member of the Association of Swedish Engineering Industries Board and of Ph. Nederman & Company.
See also entry on Electrolux Group in International Directory of Company Histories.
sources for further information
"Business: Brand Challenge; Electrolux," Economist, April 6, 2002, p. 68.
"CE Leaders Who Rock," Dealerscope, October 2003, p. 40.
"Electrolux Sweeps into America: CEO Hans Straberg Explains the Swedish Appliance Giant's Plan to Raise the U.S. Profile of Its Brand-Name White Goods," BusinessWeek, September 22, 2002.
Stråberg, Hans, "Electrolux: Speech by Hans Straberg at AGM," UK Whitegoods, http://www.ukwspares.com/article657.html.
"The Top 30 in Profile: Hans Straberg," Marketing Week, January 29, 2004, p. 26.
Wolf, Alan, "Major Appliance Business Rebounded In 2003," TWICE, December 22, 2003, p. 86.
—Kenneth R. Shepherd