VICTOR MULLER | CEO, Saab Spyker Automobiles
By Lawrence Ulrich
Among GM brands, Pontiac and Saturn are gone, and Hummer is swirling the drain. But if fairy tales can come true, Victor Muller, the founder and CEO of Spyker Cars, may one day be remembered as the little Dutchman who plugged a leak in GM's dike to save its crumbling Saab unit and approximately 3500 employees.
The speck-sized Spyker of the Netherlands, which has built only about 260 exotic cars since 2001, is set to acquire Saab - which in 2008 sold nearly 100,000 cars worldwide - for a mere $74 million in cash to GM, plus $326 million in stock in the new Saab Spyker Automobiles. (At press time, the deal hinged on the European Commission's near-certain approval of a Swedish government-backed loan).
On January 28, just hours after he addressed thousands of cheering Saab workers in Trollhättan, Sweden, a sleep-deprived Muller acknowledged the sheer improbability of his eleventh-hour rescue - and that some industry leaders, including Fiat's Sergio Marchionne, expect Saab to fail. But for now, Saab-loving professors everywhere can shed a joyful tear, or maybe dash off a nice Saab sonnet.
Muller said that those oft-abused loyalists, who have steadily dispersed to Audi and other brands, would flock back if Saab can regain its Scandinavian DNA. The new 9-4X crossover is being built by GM in Mexico, and an upcoming 9-5 sedan is largely finished. But Muller says the new 9-3 sedan is still in clay form. And the fifty-year-old attorney and entrepreneur - who has designed Spyker's models despite no formal training - vowed to reshape it. While he'll seek to hire a top-flight designer, "that doesn't mean I won't be heavily influencing the design."
"Within the restrictions of GM, the 9-3 would be just another nice GM product," he says. "In our hands, it will be a real Saab." Future models will play up Saab's aviation heritage with head-up displays and other design cues.
Muller allows that one day the umbilical cord with GM will be severed, with Saab forced to stand on its own - or, as some analysts suspect, seek another patron. Rebecca Lindland, an automotive analyst with IHS Global Insight, said that Saab has the engineering to develop its own products but not the economies of scale. "The question is, what are they going to charge for these cars?"
Muller counters that the brand doesn't have to match BMW or Lexus to be successful. Saab sold just under 40,000 cars last year (only 8680 in the United States) and was ravaged by the recession and uncertainty over its fate. But "with somewhere between 100,000 and 150,000 cars a year, we can make a very good living."
As for Spyker, itself well-versed in shaky finances and underdog status, Saab represents a potential mother lode. Muller sees parallels in Lamborghini and Bentley, which have tapped the resources and parts bins of Volkswagen and Audi to dramatically cut costs while actually boosting their performance, competitiveness, and exclusive appeal.
"Brilliant engineers at Saab can get their hands on future Spykers and make them even better," says Muller, now CEO of the newly combined company.
Spyker's motto, "Nulla tenaci invia est via," translates as "For the tenacious, no road is impassable." And while car fans can celebrate Saab's narrow escape from the fate of GM's other orphan brands, Muller will need every ounce of that tenacity - along with bullish investors to raise development cash - to keep Saab from springing a permanent leak.