Three months ago, at the Saab factory in southwestern Sweden, the lights were off, silence filled the air and the scoreboard keeping track of the day’s production posted a big fat zero.
But today, after the iconic brand’s last minute rescue by industry minnow Spyker, the plant is back from dead and brand new Saab 9-5s, the first new Saab model since 2002, are rolling off assembly lines.
Standing in front of a large window overlooking the factory, Saab chief Jan-Aake Jonsson says it is a total transformation.
“This winter, we couldn’t produce anything, we were just preparing the company’s shut-down,” he told AFP.
“Now there is a shortage of cars and we have to replenish the stocks,” he said, while behind him, the last employees were heading home for the night and the scoreboard they had made some 228 Saabs were made that day.
After starting up production again at the end of March, Saab is now readying to pick up the pace in July, pushing it from 28 to 39 vehicles a day.
The new production level will require some 200 new staff, and the car maker has already hired a new wave of employees earlier this year.
Four weeks ago, Magnus Ekman was one of the many laid-off employees called back to work.
“I was so happy, so relieved,” the blond-haired, pierced-eared 28-year-old said while screwing a bolt on a 9-5’s frame, adding he was unemployed for a year before taking short-term jobs in the area and up in Norway.
Rescued by a last-ditch, 400-million-euro (495-million-dollar) purchase by Dutch luxury car maker Spyker and its keen CEO Victor Muller, Saab is entering an era of independence, after spending 20 years as a General Motors brand.
After years of posting losses and months of negotiations and setbacks that left Saab’s fate in limbo, including the aborted purchase by Sweden’s Koeningsegg, Saab is ready to show what it’s made of, said union leader Annette Hellgren.
“There is really a feeling of revenge, we want to show what we can do,” she told AFP. “It’s pretty unique for a company to survive a year of restructuring and a wind-down.”
Petra Stoerch, who has worked at Saab for 12 years and whose mother spent 35 years at the plant, said she and fellow staff members “really want to believe,” in Saab’s future.
“It was so painful to see all the colleagues lose their jobs,” she said, briefly turning away from the assembly line where she supervises the installation of gear boxes on the Saab 9-3 and 9-5 models.
“And it wasn’t just us, but the whole city that was suffering, with all the suppliers here,” added the 37-year-old in pigtails.
“If Saab had shut down, the city would have lost at least half of its population.”
In Trollhaettan, a city of 45,000 where the economy rests on Saab and its 3,500 employees, a few movie shooting sites and a Volvo plant, signs of relief that the region’s main employer is staying are everywhere.
House prices, for example, have started to rise again.
Asked what they would have done if Saab had shut down, employees are at loss for words.
“Move away,” says one. “Work a bit as a mechanic,” said Jan, a Saab veteran of 36 years.
Katarina Erhardsson, after 20 with the company, sums up their conundrum.
“Living in Trollheattan and not working for Saab?”
“That would have just been weird.”