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SAS President Knut Hagrup studies a route with Captain E.G. Eriksson.
SAS President Knut Hagrup studies a route with Captain E.G. Eriksson.

Aviation

The pilot who became SAS CEO

SAS had a Swedish CEO for 19 of its first 23 years in existence. Then a 55-year-old former pilot from Bergen climbed to the top.

CEO Karl Nilsson had a stressful 1960s.In May 1969, Karl Nilsson, the seventh CEO in SAS history, had had enough. He had taken over from Curt Nicolin, who had come in from ASEA with only one mission: to save SAS from bankruptcy. And while the company’s finances had improved, the 1960s had been nothing but stressful. Those years had seen financial crisis, several strikes, and the constant pressure that comes with running an airline.

After seven years in the post, the 61-year-old Nilsson – known as “SAS-Kalle in Sweden” – wanted to spend more time with his family. He was burned out.

SAS hadn’t had a Norwegian CEO since 1957 when Henning Throne-Holst stepped down after less than three years on the post ­– and even he had become a Swedish citizen more than two decades earlier. SAS had also never had a CEO who had been a pilot.

In September, SAS could introduce its new CEO, Knut Hagrup – and he was both Norwegian and a former pilot.

He’d got his pilot’s certificate in 1934 and had then gone on to business school, but he changed his mind and wanted to become an airplane designer instead. The only school for that was in Darmstadt, Germany. He graduated from the technical university and returned to Norway as an engineer on April 1, 1940. Eight days later, Norway was under siege by Nazi Germany.

Germans destroyed the Norwegian air force, but Hagrup, a lieutenant, took part in fighting in southern Norway, until he was captured and taken to an internment camp and later to a concentration camp. He was released after three months when he promised not to fight against Germany.

Hagrup traveled to Sweden where a plane was waiting to get him to London. There he served with the exiled Norwegian Armed Forces and the Royal Norwegian Air Force until the end of war, when he got a job at Norway’s DNL as chief engineer. When DNL, together with Sweden’s ABA and Denmark’s DDL, founded SAS, he moved to the new company.

When he became the CEO of SAS 24 years later, Sweden’s Expressen ran the headline: “I’ve shot hundreds of Germans.”

Hagrup’s rise to the top job wasn’t a surprise. After all, he had been the chief operating officer, and he had been involved with all the major decisions the company had taken since 1962. If there was one person who didn’t take it for granted, though, it was Knut Hagrup, who had applied for the job by responding to an ad in the newspaper.

While it was not insignificant that he was Norwegian, Hagrup referred to himself as “Scandinavian.”

“When people ask me where I’m from, I always tell them I’m from Scandinavia,” he told Svenska Dagbladet in 1969. “I’ve lived in Sweden for a long time, but I don’t consider myself Swedish or Norwegian, I’m simply Scandinavian.”

Knut Hagrup signing an order for DC-9s worth a total of $100 million. Here with Bill Dickman and Erik Norman.

With his technical background, Hagrup was the perfect choice to lead SAS into the 1970s when it was time to replace the first jets the airline had acquired. The Concorde had made its first flight a few months before Hagrup took over SAS, and while everybody was talking about supersonic flights, the new SAS boss kept his cool.

“It probably won’t be available for years, and when the supersonic era arrives for real, SAS will be in the mix,” he said. “But Concorde can’t fly direct from Scandinavia to New York, so it’s nothing we’re interested in.”

Instead, Hagrup made sure the SAS fleet was up to date and renewed. He replaced the first jets, the Caravelles, with DC-9s and ushered the airline into the widebody generation by acquiring Boeing 747s, DC-10s, and Airbus A300s.

“The business principles always apply, but in general, I think we should use common sense,” he told Expressen in September 1969. “I like to get in the middle of things and take responsibility.”

That’s what he did as CEO of SAS for nine years, longer than any of his predecessors, and with the exception of Jan Carlzon, longer than any other CEO since. 

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Last edited: June 17, 2016

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