Meeting a depressed President

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In the evening, we enjoy a Black Light theater performance. This is a theater genre that has been created and developed in Prague. It is unique, fascinating and funny. If you visit Prague, this is a must.
The evening is warm as we walk back to our apartment. Lots of people are out in the streets. Walking on the street stones of Dlouha Street, small street stones typical for Prague, another memory comes to my mind. A memory from the Jas Gripen activities back in the late 1990’s. We were to meet the President of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel.
We, all the twenty of us, gathered in a rather empty room adjoining the President’s office. No furniture in the room, just a microphone on a stand in a corner. We were served drinks. As we were standing there, sipping our drinks, Vaclav Havel entered the room. A rather small and thin man. Previously a heavy smoker. Only one lung left after lung cancer surgery. The hero of the Silk Revolution. The hero of the people. The first President of the free Czechoslovakia. He walked slowly straight up to the microphone. Someone introduced him.
He did not smile. He did not really look at us. A very serious man, I thought. Or was he shy? He took out a paper from his pocket and started to give a speech in English. I don’t really remember what he talked about. It was probably one of those polite speeches that was given to every foreign group of visitors to the President’s office.
Still no smile. Still no eye contact. No face movements. A soft low voice. The speech was monotonous. President Vaclav Havel seemed to be bored. No, bored is the wrong word. Depressed is a better word. A depressed President? No chance to ask questions after the presentation. After the speech, Peter Wallenberg and his companion Erik Belfrage went over to Vaclav Havel. Even though we were in the same room, I could not hear their discussion. But I watched Havel. Still no smile, no happiness in his face.
Then Vaclav Havel left. Someone announced that the President had left for the day. But we were free to visit his office in the next room. A rather dark room with dim lighting. Thick curtains in the windows. A big desk, rather empty except for some documents and books. Some photos in frames. Several telephones on the desk. On the side, a big Czech flag. Behind the desk there was a book case with books. On the walls, framed photos, some of them in black and white. I recognized a younger Vaclav Havel in many of them. Pictures from the Silk Revolution. Pictures from happier days.
I still wonder today… Vaclav Havel, Mr. President, why were you so depressed? Was it the fact that your health was giving way? Did you have personal problems? A lonely soul in the presidential palace? Or did you just have a lousy day like all of us have sometimes?
I shall never know the answer….

The day Peter Wallenberg shocked me

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Back in Prague, the city I used to live in for six years. We are having dinner…..Walking back to our apartment from the restaurant, memories come back.
Sweden tried to sell Saab’s military fighter airplane Jas Gripen to the Czech Republic. A delegation of almost ten people, headed by Peter Wallenberg, head of the powerful Swedish industrial Wallenberg family, Saab and their partner British Aerospace came on a sales mission to Prague.
But the size of this delegation was not big enough. The Jas Gripen group had to impress their Czech hosts. So the head of every Swedish company with Wallenberg connections in the Czech Republic had to take part. We were the backdrop to the big boys in the Jas Gripen delegation, posing in the background at every meeting with our well combed hair, dark suits and conservative ties. We were to be seen but not to be heard. Quantity but not quality.
In between meetings, Peter Wallenberg, now in his 70’s, asked me how the merger between Astra and Zeneca came along. This was a pharmaceutical megamerger between the bigger Swedish Astra and the smaller British Zeneca. I had been lucky. Soon after the top positions in the new AstraZeneca group had been filled, I was told that I would keep my job as the regional head of the companies in Central and Eastern Europe. I took part in meetings in London, in Manchester, in Philadelphia and in Södertälje. Astra’s chairman Percy Barnevik stressed the importance of speed. The new organizations had to be up and running as soon as possible.
In every country, there were now two company presidents, two finance managers and so on. One of the two had to go. A lot of good people had to be fired. The consequences of a merger. A continued career or unemployment? Life or death? It was my job in my region to decide who was staying and who was going. It was tough. I could see the pain in people’s eyes as I had to inform them that their employment was over. But the job had to be done. That’s why I was there. And with time, we again had good functioning organizations.
I gave a fairly positive answer to Peter Wallenberg’s question about the merger. Then he dropped a bomb shell.
“I don’t believe in this merger”, he said. I don’t think he saw how shocked I was. He, the head of the powerful Wallenberg Family and the biggest Swedish owner of Astra, did not believe in the merger? Supposedly, Peter Wallenberg was a key player in the merger. Or wasn’t he? I wanted to ask questions. Why then the merger? Why then the firing of so many good people? But I couldn’t get a word out. Peter Wallenberg continued talking. He told me that he had been living and working in England. “I know the British”, he said. “You can’t trust them”.
An old tycoon’s view…..
Who were the winners and the losers in this merger? On the winning side, you had the shareholders of course. Always the shareholders. Great Britain was a winner, the head office moved to London. And those of us who kept our jobs, like me, were winners. Higher salaries and bigger bonuses. All those who lost their jobs were of course the losers. As was the country of Sweden. With time, the British took over. Sweden had lost one if its big industrial flag ships. Maybe Peter Wallenberg had been right.
Early summer in Prague is beautiful. We are walking back to the hotel. A horse and carriage, filled with tourists, pass us in the street. The echoes of the hooves of the horses are bouncing on the walls as I try to shake off the memories of the merger. Not all of them were good.
Tomorrow, we shall continue to explore Prague, one of my favourite cities in Europe……