Retiring European automotive supplier association CLEPA CEO Lars Holmqvist, has championed his body’s cause at the heart of the EC in Brussels for the past eight years. In the second of his interviews with Simon Warburton at CLEPA headquarters in the Belgian capital, Holmqvist outlined how the economic crisis had affected automakers and suppliers as well as his plans to spend more time on his Swedish farm.

j-a: What have been some of the legislative highlights of your tenure as CEO of CLEPA?

LH: “When the debate about CO2 legislation was going on, it was a very hostile and aggressive debate, where certain carmakers were claiming it was unrealistic, that it would be the death of the European automotive industry.

“The debates were poisoned, but in the end, when the legislation was voted through Parliament in 2008, some of the carmakers advertised 120g cars were already here. We are not even into most of 2012 and you see advertising of 95g, so it speaks for itself.”

j-a: How did CLEPA view the crisis of 2008/2009?

LH: “That was a totally different thing – we lost 35% of sales overnight – heavy duty lost 50% – they just went dead. It was like taking out a needle and pricking a balloon. Our problems were five times bigger than the carmakers. Finance was almost completely impossible – that was the main thing – the rest was social.

“It also became clear to me when there is a crisis, the authorities in the form of the European Commission [EC] instructed [the] European Investment Bank to make funds available. In 2009, more than EUR10bn was paid out in terms of loans to the carmakers. In Luxembourg [EIB headquarters], I often talked about the needs for suppliers.

“They were receptive, but due to their structure and banking circumstances, it was very difficult to get them to handle it. The speed of the crisis was something I have never, ever experienced. You have to go back to the oil crisis of 1970s.”

j-a: But what of today – are you more optimistic?

LH: “I think we will see it again, because there will be new crises. When you go to Spain and [see] youth unemployment, they are not going to buy new cars. When you look at construction companies, half-built houses and cranes staying idle, it is frightening. Are we going to have a slow movement down or a downhill race?

[However], “Our members are in a different position. We have a different structure in our factories – they are not so huge. We have smaller units, often geared towards a certain model. We have been financing for a long, long time to build our factories close to their [OEMs] factories.

“Volkswagen is expanding, Daimler wants to grow to two million cars, so does BMW. These are the healthy signs of companies that are thriving and producing more cars [but] it is not European sales, it is European production. Then you have companies in the middle, Ford and GM who have over-capacity, yes, they are almost entirely dependent on Europe.

[Sergio, Fiat] “Marchionne has been talking about closing two plants in Italy, he has said before as well not everybody will survive, Philippe Varin [PSA] using the commonality with General Motors. I don’t know if Ellesmere Port and Bochum will close but these plants have been up there before.

“If you start with the ones doing well – Volkswagen, BMW and Mercedes – I believe in a global, growing market they have found their niche. If they handle it right, they will survive for a long time. [They] might well shrink in Europe, but there will be new markets in China, Russia, Brazil and South American for their cars.”

j-a: What will you be doing following CLEPA?

LH: “I am on the board of a company called Swenox in Sweden, owned by Eberspaecher and chairman of a small company called UBD Cleantech, a remanufacturing company making exhaust systems. Both are non-executive. I am also taking on a role as adviser for a lobbying company called Kreab Gavin Anderson.

“I turned 65 in December and also had my seventh grandchild, so we are looking to spend a bit more time and [visit] a few more places. I am staying here in Brussels – we have a home in each country [Sweden and Belgium]. I have my farm in Sweden on the Baltic coast where we have some hectares and tractors waiting for me.”

j-a: What would be your observations of the main difference with the role of CLEPA CEO and your previous jobs?

LH: “The difference with this job and the one I had before is you work at a slower pace. You can’t just rush in. There is a lot of arguing and trying to convince people, to convey facts and it takes time.”