Erik Söderberg left the Ratos board at the annual general meeting in 1998 and Sven Söderberg departed two years later. Since that time, the Söderberg family has been represented on the board by Erik’s son Jan and Sven’s son Per-Olof. Both of them are business administration graduates from the Stockholm School of Economics. They have also been faithful to their family tradition of holding key positions in wholesaling.
The transfer from the fourth to the fifth generation of Söderbergs around the turn of the millennium meant a new role for the family in Ratos. There was no longer a Söderberg serving as chairman of the board or managing director, although there were two active and engaged cousins sitting on the board. Since both Jan and Per-Olof had built up their own business groups, they were able to provide key support for management. Between the two of them, they had privately discussed the private equity model even before Arne Karlsson was recruited to be managing director at Ratos. Consequently, they gave the new strategy their full support.
Cooperation between Jan and Per-Olof Söderberg has worked well. Jan has explained his background like this: It is no secret that my father, Erik, and the older brother Johan, had a growing conflict with their younger brother Sven, who was chosen to lead Ratos. When Johan needed to sell shares to solve problems in other operations, he sold to our family, which created a thorn in the relationship with Sven, which I subsequently felt. However, Per-Olof and I agreed to put those old differences behind us. Things couldn’t continue like that.
During a subsequent phase, Barbro Montgomery decided to sell a large portion of her shares to Sven, which restored the balance between Erik’s and Sven’s branches of the family. Per-Olof Söderberg points out that the divide in the fourth generation resulted in a loss of focus on the big problems facing Ratos during the 1990s. Now Ratos is governed professionally and does not serve as a power company for any family interests. The overarching goal is to generate the highest possible return for shareholders.
Within the Söderberg family, in addition to the family foundations, there is also significant personal ownership in Ratos. In addition to Jan and Per-Olof, several of their siblings and cousins are relatively large shareholders. They usually discuss ownership issues at the so-called cousin group. Torsten’s descendants are among the active ownership group through Torsten Söderberg’s Foundation. Edvard’s oldest daughter, Maria Söderberg, has represented the Foundation at Ratos’s nominating committee since 2005.
Jan and Per-Olof’s roles in the Ratos board can be described as being the company’s DNA. They stand for and represent the long-term basic values behind Ratos. A few key value words are professionalism, social responsibility and transparency – everything that Ratos does should be able to withstand the light of publicity. Business culture plays an important role – it should define both Ratos and the companies that Ratos owns. For this fifth generation, it means handing off a company to the sixth generation that is better than the one they themselves received.
The future for Ratos lies in developing its role as a company builder, by focusing on development and driving growth and profitability. Per-Olof’s basic attitude towards all enterprise is that only people can generate value. Consequently, it is important to build networks and to find the right people for various positions. Above all, it is important to recruit individuals with a strong interest in business and preferably with experience with business development.
Jan acknowledges that much has changed in the business world since the turn of the millennium. Access to capital has increased, while the availability of interesting investment objects has not expanded as rapidly, which is why there are ever greater requirements to find good business opportunities. At the same time, other valuation issues have become increasingly important in the business world. Consequently, Ratos must constantly develop and change: “It’s all about evolution, not a revolution”.