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Ola Källenius

With 26 years behind him in executive management positions at Mercedes Benz, he’s the first Swede in history to be at the helm of Daimler. Known for his sharp intellect and exemplary ability to communicate, he’s fluent in English, Swedish and German. Having endured the frenetic velocity of training at Tolkskolan, the Swedish Armed Forces Interpreter School, he learned military intelligence and security tactics, as well as how to speak Russian in just twelve months. But deep down, Ola Källenius says he’s just a regular guy.

“I was born in Västervik and moved to Malmö when I was one. My father comes from Stockholm and his family’s summerhouse was in Skåne right beside the farm where my mother grew up. This is how my parents met, so I’ve always had this great combination: city and country life. The summerhouse has always been a special place where the family comes together.”

When Ola was 16, he woke up to his parents entering his bedroom. Ola, his older brother, and younger sister had moved quite often during their childhood: through Sweden, Germany, and Switzerland – always returning to Skåne. Now his parents said they would be relocating again: this time to Stockholm. This would set the path for Ola’s life.

Once in Stockholm, Ola’s family rented an apartment across the street from the Stockholm School of Economics while waiting to buy a house.

“I watched the students go in and out of SSE. My brother went to the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH), and I was headed there too.”

At the last minute, Ola decided to study business instead.

“I had a connection to the Stockholm School of Economics: the smaller classes, tighter community, and family-type atmosphere. Not only was SSE the best choice for education in Sweden; it was also strong internationally.”

Ola would first complete his extremely demanding year of military service.

“Tolkskolan was the most intense 15 months of my life. Arriving at SSE was easy compared to that. At SSE, we were first divided into groups of six and had a mentor from second year. This close group of random people formed a nucleus of friendships. With only 350 people in the graduating class, this intimate setting created close bonds and you got to know everybody.”

“When I run into people now whom I haven’t seen in 30 years, it’s as though we’re right back there again. Many of the people I met during that first week are my closest friends today.”

Ola appreciated the numerous extracurricular clubs and activities at SSE and was inspired to start something new.

“I was very passionate about American football and played at the time with a team called the Danderyd Mean Machines. One of my best friends, Thomas Ranje and I founded the first American football team in SSE’s history. We called ourselves The Stockholm School of Economics’ Traders. He was defensive captain, and I was the offensive captain. That was fun as hell: a group of guys playing football during the day and then writing our play books at night while watching tape of the Chicago Bears against the New England Patriots. We coached ourselves! It was absolutely hilarious!”

Ola was also deeply involved academically.

“A friend of mine, Joakim Weidemanis who did his military service with me, had worked for the Swedish Embassy in Moscow and the new Consulate of Sweden in Latvia. After the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union dissolved, we said: ‘We have to do something! How can we contribute?’”

Ola and Joakim co-founded The Baltic Exchange Program through which they visited universities in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania and made creative connections with the students.

“We negotiated with companies in Sweden, saying we would bring young talent from the Baltic countries to do internships while studying market economics. This really took off and we chose the first 20 students. The program grew to include St. Petersburg the following year. After I graduated, Joakim went one step further playing a pivotal role in the creation of an SSE branch in Riga that still exists.”

Ola humbly credits Joakim with carrying most of the Baltic Exchange Program and says he was proud to be his wing man, assisting until graduation.

“The brilliant thing about SSE is its entrepreneurial spirit beyond academia. For example, football has nothing to do with doing business with the Baltics. But the Stockholm School of Economics inspires that kind of breadth of activities! SSE offered so much that you couldn’t help but get involved. There was something for everybody.”

Ola especially appreciated the international opportunities.

“The Community of European Management Schools was founded to standardize a master’s in international business. This enabled students to obtain a second degree. I completed a semester at the University of Saint Gallen in Switzerland, coupled with a six-month internship in Germany.”

This created an incredible international network, which has served Ola well throughout his career.

“Regardless of whether you work for a Swedish or a global company, Sweden is rarely your main market; you’re almost pre-destined to do business internationally. These international internships shaped my life: the first year, I went to Düsseldorf and worked for a Swedish construction firm; the second year, I worked in pharmaceuticals in North Carolina; and the third year, I was back in Germany at a chemical company outside Heidelberg.”

“I’ve always had an international mindset, and SSE opened those doors for me.”

Ola smiles when he describes his most vivid memory, one which involves a legendary leader of Swedish industry.

“I remember Jan Carlzon’s speech like it was yesterday. He was one of the great industry heroes at the time. I think he still is, actually. As the CEO of Scandinavian Airlines, he came to speak with us about developing the airline, his game plan, and his vision. I mean, talk about inspiration! And that’s the connection with SSE and its alumni. Many return to give presentations to the students. Even busy business leaders took time out of their schedules to reach out to us. Can you imagine? Jan Carlzon gave an hour-long lecture to our working group. Think about that!”

Ola cherishes these moments and hopes to offer the same. He believes that having access to that kind of experience is not only inspirational; it can be transformative.

“Jan Carlzon explained that one of the absolute Swedish titans of the Wallenberg family, Marcus Wallenberg, told him: ‘If you save one Swedish crown, one more is automatically added to your bottom line. Therefore, if you are frugal and take care of your costs, then you can take care of your bottom line.’ Jan Carlzon had a very expansive strategy for SAS: by increasing the revenue, you don’t get the same one-to-one relationship to the bottom line. This is the other part of the game that drives profitability. He explained how turning SAS into an integrated travel company added more revenue as a result. I never forgot that.”

Ola took this inspiration and decided he wanted to work with an identifiable product and an iconic brand.

“I got in touch with Daimler during my studies in St. Gallen because I wanted to work internationally. Here was a company with a global footprint, a fascinating product, and the most iconic brand.”

Ola applied to the Daimler-Benz Management Associates Program and was invited to Stuttgart for interviews. He joined the international management program, giving him the opportunity to get to know the company through projects in different divisions.

“From the word go, it was clear to me that, in this big diverse industrial group, Mercedes is where it’s at: the car, the brand, the star.”

Mercedes decided to broaden its product portfolio and its global production footprint by building its first SUV: the M class.

“A project team was selected to build it from the ground up in the biggest SUV market in the world. I was hired to work on the project’s finance team and moved to the United States. I was 25 years old and was part of the team that built the plant in Alabama. I stayed for almost five years, during which time I was asked to represent Mercedes at a business event organized by the Stuttgart Airport. And this changed everything.”

The marketing manager at the Stuttgart Airport saw that Mercedes was setting up a plant in the Southern States, so she contacted the director of Delta Airlines in Germany with the idea of offering a direct flight between Atlanta and Stuttgart. She presented this at this event.

“Her name was Sabine, and I immediately thought this connection looked interesting. We dated for a few months; then when it became time for me to return to Alabama, it was clear that I had to convince her to join me. I proposed and Sabine said yes, so we returned to Alabama together where we began building our family. Our sons, Karl and Erik were born in America; and our third son, Henrik was born in Germany.”

Ola cherishes the time they spent in the United States.

“The people of Alabama are among the friendliest in the world. The Southern hospitality is absolutely real. We have so many wonderful memories of our days there as a young family. Building a completely new plant and a new product was a pioneering experience. I felt like a pioneer that had gone West.”

Ola’s family returned to Germany where he went into procurement and supply when Daimler merged with Chrysler. The company had an alliance with Mitsubishi, so Ola travelled extensively between the USA and Japan. He then veered off the beaten path.

“The very first Mercedes was born on the racetrack. With McLaren in the UK, the board decided to build a supercar. The new project leader would be a conduit between engineering in Germany and operations in the UK.”

With his international profile and impressive background, Ola was asked to take the lead.

“I brought my family to Surrey in Southwest London, and the sports car project was finished in two years. I was set to return to Stuttgart when I suddenly veered off in a totally different direction.”

“In Formula One, Mercedes made the engine and McLaren made the chassis. Mercedes then decided to buy the powertrain company that developed and produced the Formula One engine. My boss said: ‘Ola, I know you are ready to return to Germany, but we want you to stay in England.’”

Ola became the Managing Director of the Mercedes AMG High Performance Powertrains: the Formula One engine company. Ola and Sabine embraced this adventure and stayed in England another four years.

“Formula One is an extremely focused high-paced environment with a one-dimensional mission: Win the race! My four seasons with the team were unique. I’ll never forget being in Brazil when Lewis Hamilton overtook local hero Felipe Massa to win his first Formula One World Championship by one point in the last 20 seconds of the final lap. That was thrilling!”

The time came for Ola to return to the normal path, and he started as CEO of the plant he had helped to build in Alabama. He was there only a year when another opportunity arose: as CEO with AMG, Mercedes’ highest performing cars.

“This was a dream come true. My family returned to Germany in 2010, and we’ve been here ever since. After AMG, I joined the board as the Head of Marketing and Sales, then as the board member for R&D. Since 2019, I have been the CEO of Daimler.”

As Ola looks toward the future, he says it all comes back to his education.

“The Stockholm School of Economics has the benefit of being a world-class university in Sweden that is embedded in an international network; it provides a broad and excellent education with a host of global connections. This drives me to be a dedicated and lifetime endorser.”

Ola is generous not only with his praise; he also gives a lot of his time by participating in a webcast for fellow students about management and leadership principles. More than 27 years ago, he listened to Jan Carlzon speak about the future. Now Ola is sharing his thoughts, too.

“Our goal is to make the automobile emission free. I believe that my team can minimize the environmental footprint and, hopefully, eliminate it. We don’t need to get rid of the car; we just need to make it better. As leaders in technology and innovation, we must be among the architects of that new future. Running this company means taking it into a new future. There are many challenges and stumbling blocks on that road ahead, and my role is one that I do not take lightly. But through technology, we will find the way.”

Ola says it has been quite a diverse and exciting ride and credits one person with his trajectory.

“My wife Sabine has been instrumental. I don’t think it would have been possible to have had this kind of career, especially geographically, if she pursued her career with the same level of ambition as I did. She obviously had a successful career in business when we met. Given the international life we have, she has made the children her purpose and mission to ensure they have whatever is needed to go through school and get through life.”

Ola calls her the bedrock that has kept the family together. He says he was able to say yes to every opportunity, all because of her.

“There are veritable cultural differences between Sweden and Germany. In Germany, if a person – usually the man – has a progressive and demanding career, the other one takes a step back to ensure the family is supported. That is not necessarily the case in Sweden where there is full-day school, subsidized daycare, and afterschool activities. This means two parties can fully pursue a career, and know their children are well taken care of. This is engrained in the normal fabric of Swedish society.”

“There is a dramatic difference in the school system between the countries: the school day in Sweden is 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.; in Germany it’s 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., with the children coming home at lunch. Sabine would often get the question: ‘What do you do for a living?’ Her response that she was taking care of the family was often met with the unspoken reaction that she wasn’t doing anything. You are justified by your work, and when a person decides to stay at home and prioritize the care of their children, they are seen as not working. I have learned to appreciate how invaluable the work is when you take care of the family and the home.”

Ola unequivocally believes that one doesn’t have to be defined by their career and that every person should have free choice whether to make the family or the career their work.

“I feel a great sense of gratitude toward Sabine for taking care of our family, which enabled me to have this journey. She made this happen.”

Whether it comes from his solid Swedish upbringing or his international travels, those who know and work with Ola say this humility in a global leader is as refreshing as it is inspiring. He is a deeply private person, and his quiet integrity is apparent in every word he says. It is impossible not to see that honesty and modesty are at the very heart of this man.

“I am Swedish, and it’s very un-Swedish to talk about yourself. Swedes are quite optimistic people: if we have a problem, we quickly try to fix it then quietly move on. In that regard, I’m just a Swede. When I am back at the farm or the summerhouse where my parents met, I’m just a regular guy. If you’re in a public position such as being a high-level CEO, people often see the position of power and not the person you are. That’s the key; maybe it’s the key to my life. I’m just the regular guy that leads this multi-national corporation. That is who I am. And whenever I’m not the CEO of a global company anymore, I’m just as happy at being that regular guy again. That’s the truth. I will never forget where I came from. Even if I’m flying across the world in an expensive class, I always have both feet on the ground.”


Text: Karyn McGettigan