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Torsten Jansson. Photo: Geoff Mortimore
Torsten Jansson. Photo: Geoff Mortimore

On the crest of a wave

From humble beginnings printing T-shirts for sports clubs, Torsten Jansson now has a global empire and runs many of Sweden’s most loved and respected brands. Not bad for a once-stubborn boy who wanted to leave school at the age of 15.

It’s not hard to imagine how Torsten Jansson’s parents – both teachers, reacted when he told them that he wanted to give up school before turning 16. He was a highly accomplished table tennis player and wanted to focus on turning professional. But in the end, a compromise of two extra years of education was reached. And then, a short stint in a factory after completing his military service changed his life.

“After six months working in a dairy, I realized ‘I can’t work here the rest of my life,’” Jansson says. “Then I saw an ad selling screen-printing equipment. And as I already had contacts at sports clubs, I bought it and started running my first company in 1980, when I was 19.”

That fledgling clothing firm, run from his parents cellar in Dingle, western Sweden, would start a journey that has taken Jansson to the head of New Wave Group, a global organization that turns over more than SKr 5 billion and employs over 2,400 people in more than 30 countries.

Age: 54
Lives: Kosta, Stockholm and Gothenburg
Family: Wife Ulrica Messing, four children, two step children
Career: Started his first screen-printing company aged 19. Founder and majority owner of New Wave Group
Hobbies: Cars, boats, cooking, fishing

The Group designs, acquires and develops brands and products in the corporate promo, sports and gifts and home furnishings sectors. It consists of around 50 operational companies and includes several internationally well-known sports brands like AHEAD, Auclair, Craft, Cutter & Buck and Seger, while its gifts and home furnishing brands include Kosta Boda, Orrefors and Sagaform.

Its growth can be attributed to a number of key decisions made by Jansson, some of which were planned, some of which were more spontaneous. One of these was the decision to expand outside of Scandinavia, which first took place when Jansson established a sales company in Italy in 1994. A problem with his supplier had forced him to look for other alternatives, but the move would later prove to have a much wider significance.

“It meant that I now had companies in southern and northern Europe. I figured that if the business could work in Italy and Scandinavia, then the chances were that it would also work in the countries between, so that was a very important step.”

Once the initial move into the rest of Europe was made, there was no stopping him and he turned his attention to China, which provided the perfect opportunity to go truly global.

“At that time, Europeans were all using agents or traders based in Hong Kong. By opening up our own operation in Shanghai, we could save money and develop more environmentally friendly products. As a result, we were cheaper and better, and things really took off.”

And take off they did. The New Wave Group soon opened operations in Finland, Spain, Germany, Switzerland, France and the UK. 

Another landmark year was 1996, with the acquisition of the sportswear specialist Craft, which meant entering the retail sector for the first time. The emphasis was still on clothing and textiles, but this opened up a new market sector. The added growth led to the company being listed on the Stockholm stock exchange the following year.  

Over time, the New Wave Group has diversified. It is now split into three separate business areas – corporate and promotional clothing, sports and leisurewear, and gifts and home furnishings. The success of Craft in the retail field would go on to inspire similar moves and Cutter & Buck and D.A.D are just two of the brands that have helped pushed sportswear to account for some 40% of global sales.

The Kosta Boda collection has evolved far beyond crystal vases and glasses. Photo: Kosta Boda

In 2005, Jansson acquired iconic Swedish glassmakers Kosta Boda, which celebrates its 275th anniversary this year. This was one of his most controversial acquisitions. Taking on a concern that, while a part of Sweden’s rich cultural history, had rarely turned a profit, was a risky strategy.

Jansson realized it required major, but sensitive, surgery. “You inherit a culture when you buy a company,” he says. “In this case, I felt it was necessary to change it, for it to succeed. That’s one of the trickiest things – sometimes it feels like there are ghosts in the wall there. They were very creative people, making nicely designed products, which, to them, was the important part. Whether they sold well, or made a profit, was less vital. But it doesn’t matter if you produce the most beautiful glass in the world if no one is buying it, and changing that mindset is an ongoing process for us.”

After some painful downsizing, Jansson’s methods eventually bore fruit, and four tough years later the company finally moved into profit and stability, not least thanks to new product lines, such as crystal gearshifts in Volvo cars, glass worktops in hotel receptions and the ultra-stylish Art Hotel in Kosta.

‘It’s important to build something for the long haul’

“People simply don’t collect crystal glassware like they used to – we had to adapt. I regretted making that acquisition for a while, but not anymore. It’s tough with brands like that, which people have such a close relationship with – everyone has an opinion on what you can and can’t do,” says the entrepreneur.

It may be tempting to think of the New Wave Group as an uninterrupted success story, but Jansson’s journey has had its bumpy patches. The first financial crash in the late 80s saw him lose control of his own company, and although he ended up buying it back, it meant having to start over again from scratch.
And when the global financial crisis really started to take hold in 2007, his business nous was put to the toughest possible test.

The group was forced to shed some 700 jobs, cutting back from a height of 2,900. Jansson admits that the situation was extreme, particularly in 2009, although he maintains that he never felt it was in danger of going under.

Photo: Kosta Boda

Like his entrepreneurial counterparts, he sees the difficult times as part of the valuable learning process of running an international concern. And there’s no mistaking the glint in his eye as he looks forward to the opportunities and challenges of further growth in the US, and Canada in particular.

“Canada is very interesting,” he says. “American companies think of it as a small market with only 40 million inhabitants, two languages and a different currency. For me, 40 million people, the same climate and only two languages make it an easy market, compared to Europe.”

On a personal level meanwhile, the engaging raconteur says his priorities have changed over the years. Making money continues to be at the core, but it’s not the driving force it once was.

“I’ve always been much more interested in building up things than owning a large percentage for myself,” he says. “For me, it’s important to build something for the long haul, where people can feel safe. The best way to do that is via growth, but other factors come in too. With my children, I have also always stressed the importance of education – it took me too long to learn that myself!”

To prove his point, Jansson is busy learning a new language, which could come in handy, with his globetrotting showing few signs of abating. Even though he admits that travelling outside Sweden some 150 days a year is becoming a bigger and bigger challenge, he laughs off the idea of retiring any time soon.

“I would be hopeless as a pensioner! Like a lot of entrepreneurs, I’m really restless. But I love cooking, still play table tennis and I do enjoy fishing. The trouble with fishing though, is that if I don’t catch anything within 10 minutes, I start thinking about the business again. I’m lucky that my job is also my hobby.”

Text: Helén Karlsson

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