Peter Sjölander: 'We try to live our outdoor brand values'

Helly Hansen's boss is an early starter, and so is his executive chain gang. By James Thompson
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Peter Sjölander, chief executive of the sportswear manufacturer Helly Hansen, wakes up and gets ready to cycle 14 miles to a management meeting in a mountain lodge outside Oslo.

The commute seems highly appropriate for the boss of the Norwegian maker of action-utility wear for survival, work and sport, which dates back to 1877.

Eight of the manufacturer's senior management team, including Mr Sjölander, meet just outside Oslo at about 7am, before setting off on a 14-mile ride. The team of intrepid cyclists included Helly Hansen's global head of sales, finance director and global head of marketing.

On raising the bike ride idea with the team, Mr Sjölander said: "We try to live our [outdoor] brand values so no one was really shocked but there were a few people who were worried about their shape. There were a few moans and groans." After an hour-long ride, which was "mostly steeply uphill", the team arrived at the mountain lodge in Kikut.


Mr Sjölander – who joined as chief executive in September 2007 from the washing machine giant Electrolux, where he was senior European vice-president of product and brand – holds a meeting to discuss Helly Hansen's growth strategy for the next three to four years, which is heavily centred on the seasons. Helly Hansen generated the bulk of its €300m (£240m) revenues from its wholesale business in 2007, which distributes to more than 40 countries, but it also has 126 retail stores that are a combination of company-owned outlets and those run by franchisees.

The team discuss the product assortment to deliver to the market by 2010 and which countries are the most important. Demand for Helly Hansen's waterproof jackets grew strongly in the Norwegian oil exploration boom in the 1970s and since then it has further extended its reach into premium work, survival and sportswear.

Of its product categories, three key ones are apparel for water sports, such as sailing; outdoor wear for activities such as hiking, rock climbing and mountain biking; and footwear. "Traditionally we have been much bigger in apparel than footwear. By 2010, we plan to increase our footwear offer quite dramatically," says Mr Sjölander. Its main target markets are Canada, the US, the UK, Scandinavia and Russia. While it sells products to UK retailers, including Blacks Leisure and JJB Sports, it wants to open its first two stores in the UK over the next two years. However, Mr Sjölander stresses this is not the start of a roll-out programme on these shores. "We want to open a few [UK] stores in strategic areas to showcase the brand to consumers." he says. "It [the UK] is one of our fastest growing businesses."

In the late 1990s, Helly Hansen developed a cult following among streetwise youths in the UK, helped by the backing of the US hip-hop star Mary J Blige. Once the urban craze ended, Helly Hansen started focusing again on core outdoor enthusiasts and athletes. It is also involved with this month's Olympics, where it is sponsoring the Italian Star dinghy sailors Diego Negri and Luigi Viale.


The rest of the management team head off for a spot of lunch in the nearby resort. Mr Sjölander stays in the lodge for a telephone conference call with a real estate developer about a large new Helly Hansen store, although he declined to reveal where. Mr Sjölander then joins his colleagues for a quick bite to eat and "an informal" chat about a potential acquisition target for Helly Hansen. It wants to acquire another apparel manufacturer, which is about a fifth of its size and owns a specific technology for fabric development, although, for confidentiality reasons, he declined to elaborate. The team conclude the meeting by firming up Helly Hansen's strategic direction for 2010 and the various targets and key performance indicators for each department.


While most of the group stayed in the mountain lodge, Mr Sjölander and Helly Hansen's finance director hop back on their bikes for the journey back to Oslo. After arriving back in Oslo at about 3pm, Mr Sjölander takes a shower and grabs another bite to eat. "I am big eater and I had done lots of exercise already that day," he jokes.

At 3.30pm, Mr Sjölander and the finance director sit down to talk in more detail about its acquisition target and prepare for a meeting with their private equity owners. They drill down into its financials, forecast its performance over the next five years, identify synergies with its technology and come up with the right price for the business.

In October 2006, Nordic private equity specialist Altor Equity Partners acquired Helly Hansen. After a 30-minute cycle to Altor Equity Partners' office, Mr Sjölander and the finance director have a meeting with two of the firm's partners between 5pm and 6.30pm. "By the end of the meeting, we were in agreement that the price of the business was too high and we decided to make a counter offer," said Mr Sjölander. He adds that the discussions with the wholesale acquisition target are still ongoing. On the subject of private equity, Mr Sjölander says: "It meets my personality because I am an entrepreneur. I love their obsession with delivering results."


Mr Sjölander, along with the finance director and global head of sales, then jump on a conference call from Altor's office to Helly Hansen's North American division. Its North American boss and finance director are also on the call. At 8pm, he gets back on his bike for a short ride home. Despite getting home at 9pm, his work is not yet finished, as he is flying out to Helly Hansen's Munich office the next morning. The purpose of the meeting is to discuss its strategy in countries including France, Austria, Italy and Germany. He prepares a presentation for the next day's meeting between 10pm and midnight. He then grabs four-and-a-half hours' sleep before the alarm goes off. For mere mortals, perhaps the only consolation of such an early start is that it doesn't involve a cycle ride up a mountain to get to work.

Out of the office

It is fitting that the boss of Helly Hansen, Peter Sjölander, is no couch potato. He likes to sail, rock climb and runs 10 kilometres every second morning. Mr Sjölander, 48, admits he is lucky to work for Helly Hansen.

"I am spoiled because I get to care about activities, such as sailing." He is also following the track and field events most closely at the Olympics.

Perhaps less surprising is the fact that he says the person he most respects in business is Nike's chairman, Phil Knight, given that he spent 13 years at the sportswear giant. The US has also heavily influenced Mr Sjölander's choice of music with Timbaland, the R&B record producer and rapper, being a favourite on his iPod, along with the band Three Doors Down. For the record, Puccini's work also features.

The last book he read was Written in Bone by the British crime writer Simon Beckett.