Alain Visser, CEO of car-subscription company Lynk & Co, has chosen a youthful team who can teach him what’s ‘cool’ – just as long as it doesn’t involve reading management books or going running.
Once a month Alain Visser leaves his adopted home on Sweden’s west coast, flies to Antwerp where he grew up and buys a portion of Belgium’s most beloved snack. “The first thing I do when I get in my apartment is buy fries with mayonnaise – it’s the traditional thing,” he says with a broad smile.
“Traditional” is a word that the 54-year-old uses frequently to describe himself and his habits. He enjoys fine wine and candle-lit dinners, and his favourite kind of drive is between villages on England’s country lanes. His office uniform is a navy shirt and a discreet pair of trainers by classic British shoe brand Church’s. The car he’d most like to own is an Aston Martin.
But Visser, having made the most of borrowing company vehicles while working in the motor industry for the past three decades, has never actually bought a car of his own. Plus, he says his “two left hands” mean he’s hopeless beneath the bonnet. These are crucial details that explain why he’s at the helm of what is perhaps the least traditional car firm in Europe.
Lynk & Co is a mobility company that the Belgian likes to describe as “the Netflix or the Spotify of the car industry”. A sub-brand of Chinese carmaker Geely and Volvo Cars (where Visser was previously global vice-president of marketing, sales and customer service), its goal is to give customers access to premium cars with maximum flexibility. Although the vehicles are available to buy, the heart of the company’s business model is a subscription service that – like its digital role models – users can try for a month and cancel at any time. With no physical keys (the cars are unlocked with smartphones) subscribers can also lend vehicles to friends or even delivery drivers and get cashback by making them available for car-sharing at times when they’re surplus to requirements.
It was Visser who presented the proposal to create the new brand while he was working at Volvo. “We said that the brand needs to be a modern cool brand but let’s not try too hard to be cool because then it’s not cool,” he says, laughing. “What I didn’t anticipate was that three weeks later they would knock on my door and say, ‘Do it’.”
That was in 2016. Since then three models have been unveiled: a crossover (called the 01), an SUV (the 02) and a sedan (the 03). Partly inspired by Apple’s iPhone, they come in just five colours: white, black, brown, blue and red. The 02 is already being produced and sold in China. European customers have a longer wait, with hybrid and electric versions of the vehicles available from 2020 and made at Volvo Cars’ production plant in Ghent.
Although Visser does nothing to downplay the “premium” Volvo technology behind the cars, their technical specifications are clearly not his main focus. “We all try and make better cars, whereas the customers do not necessarily want better and better cars – they want better mobility services,” he says.
Lynk & Co aims to offer such services by tackling what the CEO describes as the “shit points” in an industry he’s long been concerned “has a bit of an ugly aftertaste”. Having to visit dealerships, haggling over prices, deliberating between multiple design options and waiting months for delivery can all be, he says, a thing of the past. Lynk & Co customers can go online and choose from a range of fixed-cost vehicles that can be dropped off within two days. The company arranges servicing and subscribers can switch to newly released models within 30 days. Monthly subscription prices have yet to be fixed but Visser regularly cites €400 as an example cost.
Younger consumers with “above average education and income” are the target market he says, tapping into a shift away from successful graduates blowing their first big paycheques on statement purchases in favour of experiences. “They are OK spending a lot of money on mobility. They spend money on Uber taxis, on public transport and on renting cars but they are no longer ready to spend €20,000 on a car,” says Visser.
Hiring the kind of people he’d like to be the company’s customer base has been a key management tactic for the CEO, who says he’d grown tired of being surrounded by “old men” who “think they know what’s cool” in his previous roles, which include senior positions at Ford and General Motors. “The best way to make sure we do what the consumer wants is to bring the consumer into the company,” he says.
The interior of Lynk & Co’s glass-fronted waterside headquarters in Gothenburg has clearly been designed by, and for, his international team sourced from 22 countries, which has an average age of 34. A bright-yellow velvet-lined meeting room has tables that can beam scribbles straight onto a projection screen. Smoothie blenders have been transformed into mobile-phone charging points (that also stop staff scrolling once the lids are on). What looks like a DJ booth surrounded by neon tubing is being built for the reception area and more than two thirds of the 120 staff in Sweden have been recruited from outside the car business. It’s that kind of office.
“Part of what I want to achieve is to make this company and this industry really transparent, nice and friendly,” says Visser. He is relaxed about delegating to his young workforce but admits he is “addicted” to his smartphone as he seeks to be as responsive as possible to his staff and people in other time zones.
But, in terms of having a physical presence in the office, he says he has embraced a better work-life balance since moving to Sweden five years ago. He rarely stays later than 17.00, something he’s mocked for by friends in other international business hubs. “We all laugh at it but I think the Swedes laugh much more at the others than the other way around.”
Where is the best place to prepare for leadership: business school or on the job?
A diploma is a ticket of entry and a foundation of knowledge but I never look at diplomas when recruiting. You learn by doing, not by reading.
Describe your management style.
I want to be inspirational, supportive; giving clear direction, allowing for mistakes. If we don’t make mistakes, we made a big mistake.
Are tough decisions best taken by one person or by a group?
Building a brand is not a democracy. I always consult but at the end of the day you have to make the call.
Do you want to be liked or respected?
I’m a big believer in building a positive corporate culture; people who like what they do will do things better. As a leader you have a responsibility over a business but, even more importantly, over people and their quality of life.
Do you read management books?
No. They are so boring. When I sit on the beach on holiday and I see someone reading a business book I feel so sorry for them.
Do you have a run in the morning? Wine with lunch? Socialise with your team after work?
I work in the car industry so running early is not on my list. But a glass of wine for lunch, absolutely. And I like to do things with the team after hours but not too much. I try to respect their private lives.
What’s your key management advice?
You are only as good as your team is. It’s all about people. You only shine if you make those around you shine with you.
What’s the most difficult part of your job?
People. Managing their expectations, judging them. I’m just a person too so I make mistakes. It’s by far both the most enriching and difficult part of the job.
Is it OK for employees to disagree with you or should they toe the line?
I would say it’s not OK not to disagree. My people know more than I do, about so many things, so they need to challenge me as much as I challenge them.
If you could fix one thing about your company, what would it be?
I’m so impatient. I want things to go faster… all the time.