Volvo’s New Outsider CEO

Breaking with tradition, Volvo opts for an outsider to the automotive industry.

Jim Rowan

Volvo has announced that Jim Rowan, currently CEO of Ember Technologies, a US temperature-controlled kitchenware company, will succeed Håkan Samuelsson as CEO and president starting in March.

“Volvo Cars is going through a rapid transformation of digitalization which is why we wanted to bring in someone with global CEO experience from outside the automotive industry,” Eric Li, chairman of Volvo Cars, said in the press announcement.

Carmakers usually headhunt from competitors, so the appointment of Rowan, who has served as CEO of British vacuum cleaner manufacturer Dyson and as COO of Blackberry, is a departure from tradition. Yet it’s logical enough given auto trends. Volvo is aiming for 50% of its global sales to consist of fully electric cars, with the rest hybrids, by 2025. It has pledged to go fully electric by 2030.

Throughout his career Rowan worked hard on digitalization, disruptive technologies, innovation, engineering and supply chains, making him a match for Volvo’s criteria of  “a CEO who has a strong background in software, digital transformation and innovative consumer products.”

He may also have some humility about the auto industry. Dyson had an electric-vehicle manufacturing project while Rowan was CEO. Viewed as a vanity project of the company’s founder, James Dyson, it was scrapped after just three years, so Rowan does have some understanding of the challenges involved in making EVs economically viable.

He also brings valuable experience of Asian manufacturing. Dyson has plants in Singapore, China and the Philippines. Volvo Cars signed an agreement, in July 2021, with its parent Geely Holding to acquire Geely’s stake in the its joint ventures in China, with the aim of taking full ownership of those car manufacturing plants and sales operations.