Saabs now-closed Trollhattan plant

Saab's now-closed Trollhattan plant

How could we let that happen?” was the frustrated response from Scandinavian supplier body FKG managing director Fredrik Sidahl to me earlier today (19 March) in his Gothenburg office.

There was only one topic, of course, and, despite the FKG being present in so many other facets of Swedish automotive life, it's Saab that continues to dominate the immediate with Sidahl's members highly unlikely to recoup the not inconsequential SEK1bn owed by the bankrupt automaker to countless suppliers.

The FKG chief also fired a shot across the Swedish government's bows as to what image Saab's collapse presents to the outside world, in terms of future investment.

“The sign we put up over Sweden is the Swedish government does not care about the automotive industry,” Sidahl said. “How does that look for investors from China or foreign countries? The government obviously does not support the industry – that is the message we send out.”

Strong words from the Scandinavian supplier boss and I found them echoed in Saab's home of Trollhattan itself where I am now to meet the leader of the city council later this evening and it will be interesting to put the FKG head's thoughts to him.

I've just taken the opportunity to visit the Saab plant – a wild goose chase as it turns out because, despite trying to talk to Saab's receivers in Gothenburg to arrange a visit, they maintained their silent stance and I couldn't get in.

The friendly but stern security guard on the gate was having none of me just waltzing in and, so, all I had to content myself with was staring through the gates at a virtual ghost plant peopled by a skeleton staff of a few hundred, mainly employed to keep the buildings clean and the machinery ticking over.

It's a giant, sprawling place, as most car factories are of course, but there was almost complete and deafening silence, apart from the viscious wind slapping the empty flagpoles at the main gate.

No delivery lorries, no forklift trucks, no shouting, no banter as shifts change, no cheery greetings and definitely no shiny new cars being driven out, just almost complete and eerie silence.

I went back into the centre of Trollhattan to try and gauge the size of the impact Saab's failure has wrought on this small town of around 50,000 – a bankruptcy unions claim has led to the place experiencing eye-wateringly high unemployment levels of up to 25%.

It's fair to say the job centre is doing brisk work – it's no surprise a recent employment fair in Trollhattan attracted huge attention – while local businesses told me their trade had been hit as the reality hits home of perhaps 10,000 people out of work who suddenly find themselves struggling to make ends meet.

“Just go outside and pick anyone,” one restaurant-goer told me when I asked if he knew anyone who had been made redundant at Saab; there really does seem to be a sense of something very important having been removed from the community.

“Here in Trollhattan, it is one of the most unemployed people in Sweden,” his friend added to me. “A lot of places have been closed because of Saab. There are lots of people just walking about here in Trollhattan with no job.”

As I write this from a small café in Trollhattan's centre, there do appear to be a lot of people milling about but that could be true of any town on a Monday afternoon.

But the café owner gave me a sense of just how hard the loss of nearly 4,000 direct jobs, and possibly thousands more in the supply chain, had affected Trollhattan and her business.

“People think about their children first and buy food for them,” she told me between clearing up after the – few – customers. “When Saab was open, people came with their children but now, no.”

She – like so many others who have seen countless false starts with Saab – also expressed scepticism the mooted Chinese takeover of the automaker by Youngman would ever actually materialise.

“I don't believe it about the Chinese,” she said. “I believe it when I see it,” adding an echo of what the FKG managing director in Gothenburg told me this morning: “The Swedish government could do more – they should do more.”

A point of view to put to the Trollhattan council leader this evening.

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