Johannes Bäckman - Vice President, Mergers and Acquisitions at Husqvarna Group

07 June, 2024

Johannes Bäckman is Vice President, Mergers and Acquisitions (M&A) at Husqvarna Group. Prior to this, he established E.F. English First in China and further developed his career at firms including Xylem Inc. and Loomis.

Here, Johannes discusses Husqvarna Group’s company culture, sustainability initiatives and innovations. He provides insight into the onboarding process and how job seekers can stand out from the crowd.

What is the most rewarding part of your role?

The most rewarding part is that there’s lots of variation and learning. When you’re working in M&A, you address areas of your strategy, areas of improvement and how to get to the desired position quicker.

A lot of my work is with external companies; trying to understand new businesses and see how they would fit with Husqvarna Group. I get to know new people too. That exposure to the external environment and the future-looking environment fits me well. I like that a lot.

What risks have you taken throughout your career? Have these helped you get to where you are?

It probably starts in my early childhood, with my parents. They were teachers and that meant we always had a lot of books at home. They influenced a specific choice that led me to where I am today. At 16, I wanted to go away for an exchange year abroad. I looked at New Zealand specifically because geographically it was as far away as you can possibly get from Sweden.

I asked my dad, what do you think? And then he said, “Well, Johannes, I think you should go somewhere where there are as few white people as possible.” So, I ticked the box with Asia. That started it all and I became an exchange student in Thailand, living in the countryside with a Thai family whom I am still in contact with. They were of Chinese heritage, leading me to want to study Chinese as well – that I did.

Asia was growing, it's a good place to be and it's good to know these languages. I added a bit of business education on top of that, but it all started with having an interest in learning, and that curiosity put me in a good place.

If there was something you could change in your career, what would it be and why?

I have always had a plan. I studied Asian languages because I wanted to work in Asia, and I planned to study business too so I would be employable. Right out of university there was a big financial crisis, and nobody was hiring. I was very lucky; I took another job working for the government. I worked for the cabinet during a reformation of the education system for universities. That was my first M&A experience.

I was responsible for carving out two publicly owned universities from the state and privatizing them, so that was my first step into restructuring. A university is not a corporate business but carving out an entity, making it independent, and working with top lawyers at the time structuring that transaction was a very early learning experience. I haven't regretted anything. Theoretically, of course, I didn’t plan to work for the government, but it turned out well.

What would you say is a personal highlight from your career?

I have always had this desire to start something from scratch. I got to do that as the first manager for a company called E.F. English First, which I started from scratch in the 90s. It's a well-known privately held language school in China; last time I checked it had about a million students, so seeing where that went is fantastic.

It was lots of fun and something I wanted to do. The experience was really rewarding and it's nice to see what it has become. Personally the greatest satisfaction is to see your children grow up, but from a career perspective, that has been really satisfying.

Could you tell me a little bit about the company culture at Husqvarna Group?

It's an old company, founded in 1689. It’s still vital with innovation at the heart of the company throughout that time. Every year there’s an innovation day in Huskvarna which is the company’s main site and our engineers show off their latest creations. On occasions such as these, the pride and dedication among our colleagues are unmistakable.

Nowadays, we mainly focus on outdoor equipment for lawn care and irrigation, and we're now innovating in that space as well. We have auto-mowers - essentially low-energy robots - that take care of your lawn as you sleep. They also save water for consumers through smart irrigation systems.

The company has a very informal and caring culture, utilising a first-name basis with a very flat structure between the CEO and other employees, so it's very easy to feel at home here.

There are loads of people and you need to get to know them to be efficient and effective; it takes multiple networks.

What are three to five key drivers to success at Husqvarna Group that you look for in employees?

As a business, we must think about the customers and solve their problems to drive our business forward. At the heart of our strategies is sustainable innovation - and sustainability is not a gimmick, it's something we build our business on. That is important for our customers, so we look for people who understand that and can fit into our culture.

You need to have a skill set but it comes down to your personality and who you are to be able to thrive in our company. Of course, there are some formal evaluations of people who enter the company, but you have to be personable and thrive in an environment where you must find solutions independently or in your network; nothing comes from the top down.

What excites you about working for Husqvarna Group?

It's the potential I see in the future. We're right to be thinking about reducing energy consumption and how to conserve water through technology. We are aligned with some larger trends in society which involve saving energy, reducing fossil fuel dependence etc. Then you feel that wow, we have a business that is good today but it's going to get even better in the future. That's exciting.

The environment is important. Green spaces are becoming increasingly important for people and their health; sufficient green spaces are required as people move to cities. In Paris, they have a grand scheme to plant a lot of trees and make the city more sustainable, partly to combat climate change but also to improve human health.

What does that onboarding process look like at Husqvarna Group?

I've only hired one person so far, but I had a good introduction. The onboarding was planned out well. Before starting, you get a welcome package, so you can read up on the company and the culture. After that, it is very important to set up a lot of meetings with people because of how it works here.

Whoever I hire needs to be able to build their own network and become a go-to person in the company for their specific skill set. When my colleague joined in March, she would shadow me at meetings. I set up a lot of meetings for her too so she could engage with colleagues 1:1.

Would you say that Sweden is a good country to live in, and if so, why?

Sweden is a fun and interesting place. I'm Swedish and I grew up here, but I also lived abroad for about 13 years of my life; so, I’m partly looking at Sweden from the outside. There's a lot of smart people and smart money here and that's good. It's a great place for families to grow up.

But it's an odd place as the Swedish economy should not work. It's like a bumblebee, it looks very big, and it's got only two little wings, but it keeps afloat somehow. I think partly because of its high-trust society; you don't have too many control functions and we save costs by not checking everything. There’s trust between people and that translates to companies as well, it’s very efficient. Although it is high-cost, with high taxes and a high welfare society, on balance I think it works well.

How does it compare to the other countries you've lived in?

I can't compare it at all as I’ve mainly lived in China. China has a completely different history being a central state for a very long time and has, let's say, a command-and-control culture spanning thousands of years.

I like China and the people, but there is not the same feeling in China, where you trust the people around you – your friends and family – but that's about it. It's a big difference on a societal level. Of course, there are massive differences in your day-to-day life as well.

I have never been unhappy wherever I lived. After a while, you tend to find that people are different in terms of culture, how you do things etc. but once you get beneath the surface you have the same issues, and you can always connect to people.

What advice would you give to someone who's starting their career in Finance?

Stay curious. Finance is a broad topic. It's an important part of what the company does, to provide input on how you're performing, directing investment where it makes the most sense and ensuring your shareholders get a return as well, that's important.

It’s a very broad skill set, and it can be used in other things too. For example, I started working in Finance, then migrated over to business development and later M&A. The toolbox that I acquired from Finance is useful. It's valuable to understand to be able to paint a picture of what's going on today but also the future.

I don't think you have to narrowly focus on the Finance function. If you want, you can become very deeply skilled in Finance, but it can also be fairly broad, and you can make good use of it in various walks of life.

What advice would you offer to a job seeker looking to stand out in the market?

I mentor university students and those on a master’s program at the Stockholm School of Economics. First, you have to get to an interview, so you have to present yourself in a way that shows your skill set but also lets your personality shine through as well.

When I talk to my mentees, we often talk about how they present themselves in CVs and letters, and we talk a lot about who they are and how to become more alive in the letters they send to a company.

If that company is not a good fit, it doesn't matter because recruitment is a matching function. Stay true to yourself as companies are looking for different personalities.

Also, be mindful of the fact that some opportunities open and some close. Nowadays you have to cast a wide net. You can't just target exactly what you want because there might be opportunities out there that you haven't thought about. So, use a broad mindset.

From your perspective, how would you define the role of VP M&A?

M&A is a tool that we use to make our company’s strategy come alive and get to where we want to be, perhaps faster through closing gaps in knowledge or our market position.

We can cut away things that somebody else can be a better custodian for or add attractive products or services to our portfolio. You must know your strategy to work in M&A, they go hand in hand.

My job is to identify those target areas, ensure we have the right M&A process, and move the cases through that process. Part of it is making deliberate transactions. There are multiple hoops you have to jump through but it's working with the organization to help them deliver strategy in a better way.

The real make-or-break in a transaction is integration.  As the M&A team, we are not part of that, so we need to prepare the organisation for that phase. Our specific responsibility is to make the transaction happen. But of course, we need to help people hunt for the right targets aligned to our strategy.

We take the right things through the pipeline and help people deliver value in integration. The beauty of it is the people responsible for integration will learn from that experience and become better at target selection as well.

What would you say the effects of BI and data are on the function, now or in the short to mid-term?

It's an opportunity to deliver more value to our customers. We use many platforms to obtain data on companies and have been exploring AI-driven tools to improve our target selection but I haven't found anything wonderful so far.

If your team know the strategy, they can usually come up with really good ideas. In a way, the AI I’ve used is mainly our people and their knowledge of the market.

I'm very interested in the how communication will work in the future… I’d love to have a chatbot!

Is there a myth in your profession that you want to debunk?

One myth is M&A is a type of deal-making. It’s not, it's a practical set of tools. Maybe if you're in a bank you can make deals happen. But for me at least, M&A is not so much about deal-making.

It's about ensuring that we have the right selection criteria and process, we find the right targets, we do well in buying or selling them, and then integrate them well.

It's not fashionable. It's a process-driven organisation. The process is pretty much the same every time, but the target and the subject matter vary. It is a lot of hard work. Thousands and thousands of details that you have to understand to decide whether important or not.

What would you say is one of the best compliments that you've received in your career?

Compliments from vendors who have said “I fully trust your judgment”. I like to build relationships with them, of course we have our objective in a transaction and we only want to make an evaluation that should be as reasonable as possible. You don't want to pay too much, so it could be an adversarial situation, but I like building relationships with sellers and making sure that they understand that we're not paying an excessive price for their business, it's a reasonable one and we will take good care of their people. Those transactions have worked out well.

For some of my jobs, I've had people that have been selling their businesses as referees and that’s good from a work perspective. You have to look after your interests because it's my job to look after my company's interests. I need to pull as much as possible towards my end of the table.

In the end, people must compromise; you cannot get everything that you want - that's impossible. Navigating those situations well is very important.

Who would you say is the most inspiring person for you in business and why?

There’s no public figure that I particularly admire but I’ve had multiple good managers over the years. For me, a great manager understands what I can do and lets me get on with it without micromanagement. When you have a good open relationship with your manager you can talk about anything.

What are some of the key challenges that Husqvarna Group is going to face regarding sustainability?

We have very specific sustainability targets, undertaking to cut our carbon emissions by 35% by 2025 - not just for the production of our equipment, but where people use our products under ‘Scope Three’. It's much more ambitious than most other companies. Remarkably, we have already surpassed this goal, achieving a reduction of over 50%, which is truly impressive.

The next step for us is to decide on our net-zero plan and when that is going to be. We do have combustion engines as part of our product offering and we’re trying to phase them out where we can or use alternative fuels where we can’t.

A business must think of itself as on a path to net zero because otherwise, your business will not be sustainable. It’s not about being a sustainable business, it’s making your business sustainable. So that’s one part when it comes to emissions. We also have a stated target on innovations to enhance circularity.

Additionally, we make smart controllers for irrigation, saving millions and millions of cubic meters annually. For example, instead of irrigating your lawn or garden when it’s going to rain tomorrow, the smart controller knows it’s going to rain tomorrow and will not use any water today. We also have smart solutions based on measuring soil conditions.

People don’t think about saving water too much because water is a commodity that is a bit too cheap today. I’d like to know the price of 1 litre of water in 2050. I suspect it’s going to be a lot higher. Then of course, if you have technology to save water, you also have a business that is sustainable as well.

What business value have you seen from making sustainability improvements?

If you have a lawn mower with a petrol motor on which you walk behind and push, it creates a lot of emissions… changing that for a low-power robot that uses batteries and smart technology is good from an emission perspective, but it’s also good for our business: we make much more money on the robot than on the walk behind a petrol-driven lawnmower.

Occasionally, we have to sacrifice profitability to be able to cut emissions. In general, moving as much as we can to either battery solutions or smart fuels - or something we don’t exactly know yet – is the way to go.

If you cut logs in the forest all day, you can’t carry the eight packs of batteries needed, so we have to come up with another solution. We know we can’t keep making the same two-stroke motors, so that challenges us to come up with new, smart solutions to solve the customers’ problems.

Do you have anything that you want to add to your Executive Interview that you would like to share?

Just that I really enjoy working for Husqvarna Group, and I think for the people looking for a job, a job is not just a job. You should be somewhere where you feel happy with your colleagues and with what the company is doing, then you can thrive much more. Again, most people have to work but make an effort to find the right place for you.

Thank you to Johannes for speaking to Hanna Gibson, Senior Consultant in our Nordics division.

Views and opinions contained within our Executive Interviews are those of the interviewee and not views shared by EMEA Recruitment