“I was born during the war in a small town called Motala, Sweden. My father did three years of military service, and I was conceived when he was home on leave. My four brothers and sisters were born within six years of each other. Seven years later, there was me. My oldest sister is 13 years my senior.”
“A funny thing happens when you’re the youngest of five children who are so much older; you learn very quickly how to take care of yourself. We had these meal coupons and my siblings always got first pick of the food. Meat cost the most of all, so I never ate it until I was seven. I understood very early that you must always fight for what you want.”
Meg’s father was born in 1903 and was a teacher. Her mother was born in 1907 and was a housewife and stay-at-home mother. In 1925, she was one of the few women in the town to get a high school diploma and a driver’s license.
“I don’t think Mother was really happy being a housewife; she always wanted something more. My grandparents were born in 1860. I don’t think many people alive today can say their grandparents were born in the 1800s. But I can because my grandmother was 46 when she gave birth to my mother.”
“Just like me, Mother was the last one in a long list of children; in fact, there were 23 years between her and her oldest sister. I often say that I’ve been brought up with 19th century values, which I think is actually a very good base.”
Meg was 12 when her siblings left home. She was quite lonely since she has always liked having a lot of people around her.
“I was extremely social, artistic, and athletic. These are two very distinct parts of the brain. I’ve always had so much energy: I never did my homework in the evening; I always did it in the morning before school. My day has always started at 4:30 a.m. My brain is much clearer then.”
Meg’s siblings were all excellent students, which inspired as well as challenged her. Living up to their capacity always motivated her to do better.
“I also wanted to do well in school because I wanted to see the world. When I was 16, I did something that was rare and applied for a scholarship to study in the United States.”
“The only way to get to America at the time was by ship. That was thrilling. I remember loading my bags onto the deck and waving goodbye. Then stepping back, taking a deep breath, and feeling the ocean on my face. Then after ten days of ferocious storms at sea, in the distance I could see the Statue of Liberty. What a time it was to be a teenager in America!”
“I stayed with a family in Schenectady, New York, but I was quite lonely. They had two daughters, but I was the closest to the dog. Just speaking English all the time was a challenge for me. The dog and I communicated in Swedish, which felt good. All contact with my parents was by
letter, except on Christmas Eve when I was allowed to make one three-minute telephone call.”
The year was 1960. Think: sock hops and bobbysocks, poodle skirts and ponytails. You were either a preppy or a greaser, and a varsity sweater or a leather jacket distinguished between the two. These adolescents devised their own brand, calling themselves teenagers. All products of post-war America, they received a bigger slice of the economic pie. Everybody worked and had money to spend.
“All the guys drove these big cars, which they bought themselves. That was new for me. They could get their driver’s license at 16; in Sweden, you had to be 18. I went to fancy balls in taffeta gowns!”
“I had this boyfriend who would pick me up in his turquoise ‘57 Chevy – in a white tuxedo – and come to the door with a corsage. At 16! I had never gotten that kind of treatment before. Maybe teenagers still do that today?”
They went to drive-in movies and hung out at malt shops, dancing to the sounds from the jukebox of a new thing called rock and roll.
“An ice cream shop had 36 flavors! In Sweden, ice cream was something you only had on your 50th birthday. So, I was gaining weight tremendously. By the time Christmas came, I knew something had to change. I started to lose weight, but was losing more than I had gained, so I became very skinny. When I saw my parents again, they barely recognized me.”
“Politically, this was also a very exciting time to be in the United States. Democratic candidate, John F. Kennedy defeated Republican Vice-President, Richard Nixon.”
“My father was a part-time politician in Motala with the liberal party. It was exciting for my parents to follow the elections from Sweden, knowing I was right there in the middle of America.”
Upon her return to Motala, Meg was forever changed. By the time she graduated, she knew she could get into any university.
“What I really wanted to do though was get married. But my parents said: “You can’t get married without an education.” This was the time that you thought you had to marry every guy you fell in love with. In America at that time, almost half of all brides marrying for the first time were 19 years old and younger. I was 22 and was worried I was getting old.”
Meg applied to the Stockholm School of Economics. When she started, she felt like she was the only one from a small town.
“I’ve thought of that several times since. My children are now in their 50s and were brought up in the city. I often think of what a great advantage it is to be brought up in Stockholm.”
There were 24 girls that year out of 275 students. This was a source of pride for Meg.
On her first day, Meg met Gisele Malmqvist and they became best friends. Gisele actually went on to become the first woman to successfully defend her doctoral thesis at SSE, in 1974.
“She and I loved studying together, which I think is quite important. Everyone needs a friend with whom they can study.”
“We were excellent students coming into SSE, yet were devastated when we both failed the first exam. We decided to work extra hard.”
“I know that almost half of the students at SSE are female, but at that time we were very few. Stockholm was such a big city for me; I literally did not know my way to the school unless I followed the same path every day.”
At 23, Meg got married.
“He came from a well-known family in the village and my parents really liked him. But three weeks before the wedding, I knew I did not want to go through with it. He didn’t either. But the date was set and everything was planned. We divorced when I was 24.”
At 25, Meg married again.
“This time it was love, so we eloped to Paris. We didn’t have much money, so we got married at the Swedish Embassy. A three-course dinner was included, which we thought was a good deal.”
When the newlyweds returned to Stockholm, Meg borrowed 28,000 crowns from her father to buy an apartment. This was a considerable amount of money. That apartment she bought for 28,000 would be worth seven million crowns today.
“I got married at 23, divorced at 24, remarried at 25, and then pregnant at 26. It was a very quick career!”
Meg laughs at the speed with which everything happened.
“In the eighth month, I didn’t feel well, so I went to the doctor. I could feel the baby kicking all the time: up high and down low. We didn’t have the kind of technology we have today. Two different people listened to the heartbeat, and they each heard something different. Forty-eight hours later, I gave birth to twins.”
Meg took the standard three-month maternity leave. While breastfeeding her babies six times a day, she studied psychology.
“Sadly, my father passed away, so my mother liked to stay with us in Stockholm. She really helped me a lot. I returned to work as Project Leader in an advertising agency. Then, I was the Product Manager for Stille-Werner, where I experienced my first merger; we were bought by Modo.”
Meg likens the structure of a merger with dating: it starts with a lot of secrets, and you usually work together in little groups, vying for the interest of the other. There is a lot of wining and dining in order to get to know each other with the hope that it’s the right fit.
At 29, Meg became Chief Buyer at Nordiska Kompaniet (Sweden’s most exclusive department store). As the young mother of twins, Meg was well-equipped to be in charge of baby, children, and teenage wear.
“I was responsible for 22 buyers who travelled around the world collecting merchandise. I went to Thailand, Italy, France, Portugal, and Spain, where I met some of the biggest designers: Kenzo, Sonja Rykiel, Yves Saint Laurent ... But to be honest, there were things other than fashion that I was interested in.”
Meg managed the merger between Epa and Tempo: a total of 180 department stores, which became Åhlens. In total, Meg directed NK and Åhlens for 13 years.
She went on to become the Managing Director of Holman Hygiene, which produced diapers. “It was a very complicated time where the company went through three separate mergers in as many years. My main task was to lay off several people on the production line, which I really did not enjoy.”
“After 17 years, my marriage ended, and I was so sad. The only thing I could do was to throw myself into my career. I met a new man: We bought a house, blended our four children, and became a new family. It was an on again/off again relationship for 15 years. I really liked his children and his mother. But he and I were just so different that we couldn’t make it work.”
Opposites may attract, but they don’t necessarily stay together. An example is when a company buys its competitor, thinking that by merging, the two will be much stronger. But it’s very difficult to take your main enemy and turn it into your main companion.
“I think of Cloetta Fazer: they came from different cultures, merged, and tried to stay together. But they were so different, they split after seven years. The statistics are startling: half of all mergers fail.”
Getting the new company culture right is the most important; it’s much easier to combine two companies that share similar interests, and then create a third. It can take time to feel settled.
“Bringing companies together is a lot like building a house for two families to share.”
In 1990, Meg became Regional Officer at the Swedish Post where she was responsible for all post offices in Stockholm: at least 4500 of the company’s 160,000 employees.
“I really liked the Post. By the time I left, I was responsible for all post offices in the country: 15,000–20,000 people. I was also in charge of developing its future vision.”
When I realized this restructuring meant that, once again, I would have to tell many people they no longer had a job, I resigned.”
Meg started working at Svenska Spel as the Managing Director of another merger: between Tipstjänst and Penninglotteriet. With a hammer in one hand and a handbag in the other, she became known as an expert in the field.
A successful merger is like building a new culture from the ground up, starting with the foundation, then following four important steps: articulating vision, establishing culture, developing structure, and integrating people.
Meg likens a merger to building a new country and creating a quilt of cultures that everyone shares.
“Canada is an example of a successful merger. And it all started with a vision: To create a country with people from all over the world, who come from different cultures and speak different languages, where everyone has to work in order to succeed, where everyone takes care of themselves and of each other.”
Speaking of taking care of each other, when Meg was the Managing Director of Svenska Spel, she met a professor from the Royal Institute of Technology who was the Developing Manager of the snuspåsar (“snuff” bags).
“I was 57 and he was 69, and we fell deeply in love. I stayed at Svenska Spel until my retirement in 2004, at 61. I had that plan my whole life. Curt and I still share our lives and our retirement together.”
But that does not mean Meg has slowed down. Her days still start at 4:30 a.m. and she can often be seen darting around Stockholm on her bicycle, rushing off to different fitness classes or board meetings. She has played a crucial role on boards of established firms, such as Cloetta, Nordea Fonder, Billerud, and Swedish Match. She has also been very engaged on the boards of start-up companies, such as Irisity Inzile.
“I think SSE gave me a really good start in life. I bring two strengths to the table: I’m really good at deciding which product or service makes a good business, and I really truly like people.”
Meg has the ability to see people on all levels. She believes an effective leader lives two different lives: a managerial one with the top team and another down below.
“It’s often the one who is working in the warehouse who knows more about the company than does the managing director. Those on the production line often know what’s happening in the business long before they do up in the executive suite. A good leader walks around and listens to the employees to find out what is really going on.”
Meg has been referred to as a powerful female leader, but she says she has never seen herself that way.
“I don’t see men versus women; I see people as people. And that’s it. Perhaps I’ve looked at life in an innocent way. I guess I’m not the first woman that men have tried to seduce. But I can say I’ve never been taken advantage of. I don’t think I look like a person who cannot take care of herself.”
Meg’s mere presence commands attention. She is a warm force with which to be reckoned. With a laugh that is contagious.
“My best weapon has been my sense of humor. If anyone has ever tried to minimize me, I have always been able to disarm them by being funny. This has been my way of defending myself my whole life. There are really two sides to me: the structured logical side and the more emotional side.”
Meg leans back and lets her cat find the perfect spot on her lap. She is both a fierce leader and a warm nurturer: taking care of her two children and her five grandchildren, as well as her “great love” Curt, who is now 92. Her strength is her sensitivity. With a wisdom that can only come from experience, Meg Tivéus knows – and likes – exactly who she is.
“It took me until I was 40 before I realized that a person can, indeed, work from two different sides of the brain. When I finally accepted this, they suddenly came together and became one. People don’t have to be embarrassed in business of having a head and a heart: I have both. And do you know what? I am completely okay with that.”
Text: Karyn McGettigan