Dressed in a survival suit on the deck of an Antarctic expedition ship, Katarina Fjording stood against 30 mph winds, anchored to the vessel by a cord around her waist.
It was the middle of the night, and she was trying to get reception on the captain’s phone to talk to her Volvo Cars colleagues back in Gothenburg, Sweden, who were weathering a storm of their own: the economic downturn buffeting the auto industry in 2008.
Fjording, an expert sailor with a deep interest in marine biology, had just returned to Volvo after a stint at Ford Motor Co., where she helped launch the D3 full-size car platform, and was in the middle of one of her long-awaited outdoor excursions. Volvo was still under Ford ownership, and would be until 2010, and was facing the same problems as other automakers: how to survive when customers had stopped buying cars.
Even though she was thousands of miles away in another hemisphere, Fjording did her best stay connected to decisions that could drastically change her employees’ and co-workers’ lives.
“It was quite emotional,” she said. “You’re holding people’s future in your hands.”
Fjording, 48, Volvo’s vice president of purchasing and manufacturing, is leading the construction of the automaker’s first U.S. plant, in Ridgeville, S.C., about 40 miles northwest of Charleston. She shares a hometown with Volvo — Gothenburg — and began her career at the automaker nearly 30 years ago as a design engineer on the Volvo 850. With avid interests in automotive engineering and nature, Fjording has brought numerous projects from concept to production and has traveled to all corners of the globe in the process.
For most of the 1990s, Fjording was a design engineer in Sweden, briefly working for one of Volvo’s suppliers before returning to the automaker in 1997. When Ford bought Volvo in 1999, she began traveling to Dearborn, Mich., to help with engineering. The Ford bosses offered her a job at the automaker that year, and Fjording moved to the U.S., going between Dearborn and Chicago to launch the D3 platform — a design that was to underpin at least eight North American Ford Motor Co. models.
The S60 sedan will be the Volvo U.S. plant’s first product.
To many engineers, overseeing a product launch is a one-time, grueling process that can be a steppingstone to more prestigious executive positions. To Fjording, though, it was a rush she wanted to experience again and again.
“I’m energized by being part of something unique,” she said. “It’s a priceless feeling you have when that vehicle comes off the line. It’s a teary-eyed moment.”
Fjording relived the stress and excitement of the D3 launch when she returned to Volvo a second time to help with the P3 midsize platform — which underpinned many models preceding the current Scalable Product Architecture platform. She then moved on to an even bigger project than launching a vehicle: launching the factories that produce them.
“Manufacturing is fun. The smallest thing can stop production in seconds,” Fjording said. “I like that fire-drill situation. I like challenges.”
In 2012, Volvo tasked Fjording with taking its three plants in China online — one in Daqing in the north, one in Chengdu in the west and one in Luqiao, just more than 200 miles south of Shanghai. For the first six months, it was just Fjording and a team of seven to eight Volvo employees working to retool and staff the three factories.
“I was covering a whole continent, more or less, every week,” she said. “It was very grueling.”
Despite the heavy travel schedule, Fjording built a manufacturing culture in China that one former colleague described as “more Volvo than at home” in Sweden. She encouraged Chinese workers to speak up to management and enforced strict safety protocol on the plant floor.
Although Volvo has not released complete production plans, the Chinese factories are key to the company’s growth. Daqing is to take over production of the new S90 sedan from Europe. Chengdu as well as South Carolina and Europe are to build 60-series vehicles. And Luqiao and Europe are to produce the 40 series.
Alexander Bjorklund, head of the industrial program office for Volvo Car U.S. Operations, has worked with Fjording for the past eight years. He called her work in China a “major contribution” to the automaker’s comeback, he praised the improvements she has brought to Volvo’s industrial launch process.
“She takes a lot of pride in delivering goals on time,” Bjorklund said. “She keeps a lot of focus on costs and keeping projects on budget.”
With the China factories on track to start production, Volvo asked Fjording to return to the U.S., heading the South Carolina factory project from the ground up. Initially, she split her time between China and the U.S., but eventually moved to South Carolina full time in August 2016.
Compared with other U.S. auto manufacturing operations, Volvo’s plant is relatively small — the 2.3-million-square-foot factory eventually will have capacity of 120,000 vehicles a year, but will start by producing 60,000 S60 sedans, employing 2,000 workers. The automaker said it will add a second vehicle in the next few years.
The plant is on track to begin S60 production in 2018, Volvo said in April. Under Fjording’s leadership, safety and community are visible hallmarks of the project. Instead of the typical bright yellow and orange manufacturing robots, Volvo’s robots are a dull gray to avoid distracting workers. Purple dumpsters with “Trash Gurl” stickers on the side dot the construction site — courtesy of one of the many local businesses Fjording has contracted to help with the factory.
“She comes off very serious and very focused,” Bjorklund said. “But there’s another side to her that’s social and wants to be involved in the community.”
Along with the challenges that have attracted Fjording throughout her career, the South Carolina site poses another draw — the state’s numerous rivers and forests provide easy access to the wild.
“It’s very relaxing when you have such a high-energy and stressful job,” Fjording said. “It puts life in perspective, how small we are, compared to how vast and important nature is.”