ABB is “out of the woods”
ABB chief executive Fred Kindle tells swissinfo how the Swiss-Swedish engineering giant has finally turned the corner after staring into the abyss a few years ago.
The company announced it will remove a layer of management, restructure core businesses, focus on profit rather than growth and boost its activities in China as part of its five-year strategy.
ABB will relocate its robotic division from the United States to China and warned of potential job losses in Europe as it concentrates its energies on the emerging global economies.
There are no plans to relocate or dramatically restructure ABB’s headquarters in Zurich, but a few jobs may still go in the future.
ABB temporarily moved into the black last year after three years of losses but went back into the red after revising its annual report following the settlement of asbestos-related claims in the United States.
Kindle fully took over as chief executive in January after four months in joint control with chairman Jürgen Dormann, who turned the company around after it nearly collapsed under a mountain of debt in 2002.
swissinfo: Is ABB now out of the woods after the crisis of 2002?
Fred Kindle: For all practical purposes we are out of the woods. I am very confident and I am looking forward with very positive feelings to the future. ABB is getting better every day.
swissinfo: Have you now put the past behind you?
F.K.: It’s too easy to blame the past. The foundations of ABB do not go back just five or ten years but much further and there are some very positive things to be found in our history. But in certain ways we need to have a different future.
swissinfo: How important is China in ABB’s future?
F.K.: China rightfully has a very strong position because it is a huge market with a lot of opportunities. Therefore, it is attracting a lot of our attention.
Having said that, it is important to recognise that global opportunities are not all about China. We have also seen a stellar performance in our development in India and there is very dynamic development in the Middle East, so ABB’s focus is truly global.
swissinfo: But you are relocating your robotics division and its workforce to China.
F.K.: The fact is, ABB needs to face up to reality in today’s world. We have the opportunity of moving to countries where the lower cost of labour gives us an advantage. We cannot escape this and we must be active.
We must stay at the cutting edge where we are not facing cost competition that forces us to relocate more of our workforce. Our success in emerging countries may lead to a build-up of jobs in OECD [Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development] countries in the future.
swissinfo: Has the asbestos litigation in the US nearly reached a conclusion?
F.K.: We have really got as far as we can go in making sure we find our way out of this mess. The final decision is still in the hands of the courts. We have seen some surprises, but we do not expect similar problems in the future. As long as there is no final ruling, we cannot say that we are 100 per cent safe.
swissinfo: Is it daunting to step out of the shadow of former chief executive Jürgen Dormann?
F.K.: I would not call it a daunting shadow. I have been working with Mr Dormann for a year and the cooperation we have is very constructive and positive. We are at different stages of our careers and in this context it is a very natural transition.
He was the chief executive in the crisis years and I will now hopefully lead the company for many years to come. I have seen daunting tasks before in my career and I know what the job of chief executive in a large company is all about. I am not surprised by challenges – in fact, they are the spice of life.
swissinfo-interview: Matthew Allen
ABB has set a year-on-year financial target of five per cent revenue growth and ten per cent increase in pre-tax earnings for the next five years.
Restructuring sees two core divisions being scrapped to be replaced with five new business units.
New acquisition guidelines place businesses worth under $80 million (SFr123 million) as “likely” targets, $80-243 million as “possible”, $243-567 “only if very convincing” and over $567 million as “unlikely”.
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