This week saw the death of Peter Wallenberg – one of Europe’s great industrialists and a senior member of the famous eponymous business dynasty. Peter was 88 and during his long life his achievements were considerable. Here are five of the more prominent ones:
1. Saved Investor AB. Peter Wallenberg entered the family investment business at a difficult time. His eldest brother Marc was the chosen successor, but he committed suicide and the less experienced and reluctant Peter was given the top position. He became chairman in 1982 on the death of his father Marcus. Many felt at the time that Investor’s big role in Sweden’s businesses would diminish under his leadership. They were proved wrong – when Peter stepped down Investor’s assets were around SKr85bn, compared with SKr2bn when he became chairman.
2. Confounded his critics. Most of the Swedish business community and the media reckoned he would fail at Investor. Indeed, even his father was sceptical of his business abilities. But as Peter said in an interview with a Swedish newspaper in 2006: “The doubt did me a big favour. To hear that I was worth nothing every day boosted my competitive instinct.”
3. Forged European powerhouse companies. Through his deal-making abilities he helped to create big name companies like the Swedish-Swiss engineering company ABB, Finnish-Swedish forestry business Stora Enso and Anglo-Swedish drugmaker AstraZeneca. Under his leadership the Wallenbergs owned companies including Electrolux, Saab, SAS, Atlas Copco and Scandia.
4. Appointed professional managers. Peter saw the need to rely on good outsiders to run Investor and the businesses it had big holdings in. A few of his inspired choices to run businesses included Claes Dahlbäck, CEO of Investor for more than 20 years, and Bo Berggren, who for many years successfully ran Stora before it merged with the Finnish firm Enso.
4. Made huge philanthropic efforts. Through the Karl & Alice Wallenberg Foundation, Peter increased grants to medical research throughout Sweden and the world.
Nevertheless, despite his exceptional legacy, there were a couple of points of contention in his long career, including supposedly paying excessive pay to members of his board. The most notable publicized case was the award of a sizeable pension to Percy Barnevik, the former CEO of ABB, a few years before the company was hit hard by expensive asbestos-related litigation costs.
Under his watch the cosy relationship between AB and the Swedish state was also soured somewhat. The Wallenberg family had a benign relationship with the government for much of the 20th century. But this deteriorated to some extent when Peter said in 1994 that companies might be forced to leave the country unless politicians managed get the country’s public finances in order. Although he never followed through, Investor’s relationship relationship with the state has never quite been the same.