How My SAAB Car Teaches Us A Critical Lesson In Business- And In Life

My car buff mates ridicule me because – in 25 years- I have only ever owned Saab cars. I’ve had seven of them. Now that Saab has gone bust, they laugh even louder. But little do they know that the essence of Saab, and why I buy them, has also taught me the most critical ‘must have’ to survive in business. If you don’t do this, you will fail- guaranteed.

Last night, in a brightly lit Japanese restaurant in Jakarta, my colleague wept with tears of laughter.

“What are you going to do now that Saab has gone out of business?! No more spare parts for you…hahahaha!” He rubbed it in by telling me the TV car show ‘Top Gear’ had done a great segment on the demise of Saab, and he’d send me the link. Watching it an hour later, I suddenly realized why I always bought Saabs, and why that very same reason had underpinned my ability to keep surviving in business. If you don’t have this in your armory, beware. You WILL come a cropper. Here it is.

The Top Gear guys made this one critical point about Saabs.

You don’t understand why a Saab costs so much until you crash it.

You see, Saab is an incredibly safe car. “The Saab designers are pathological about safety,” said Top Gear. I knew that. My first Saab, borrowed from my boss at the time, saved me in a massive crash as I raced to a girlfriend’s house one Saturday night, desperate not to miss out on her mother’s Malay style curry. Well, that’s my recollection of it anyway.

But here’s the message for business, and for life in general. One area of deep expertise I gained from my public relations days is crisis management. And one of the very first and most critical keys of crisis management, or crisis preparedness, is this:

You don’t make friends in a crisis.

You have to have made your friendships, to have built what I call your “Goodwill Equity”, BEFORE you have a problem and need the help of others.

This is not about insincere brownie points. It’s about thinking hard about who your key stakeholders are, and ensuring you make the effort to add value to their challenges, to be collegial and supportive, to keep in touch and to be a positive contributor to their roles and lives. This takes real persistence and attention to detail. It needs consistency, and relentlessness. It’s all about relationships, and quietly building that ‘goodwill equity.’

Only then, when the proverbial hits the fan, you’ve stuffed up, or someone close to you has, and you’re desperate for help… only then, when you make that call, are you likely (though not always) to get a: “But of course, I’d be delighted to help. You can rely on me- take it as done.”

Just like the car crash when driving a Saab, it’s at that moment you’re reminded why you have made the effort so consistently over the years… You see, you don’t make friends in a crisis. It’s as simple as that.

Postscript: A Cracker Story If You Have Two Minutes To Read On

My PR firm was advising a client very much in the news. Every day we’d monitor the media coverage, and by 8.30am send an email to this client’s leadership team on coverage highlights. One  morning my key client contact, Simon, called. “We’re firing our CFO, Arthur, at 10 am. This will be big news. Can you draft up a media statement so we can manage the press.” Just after I’d hung up, ping, the daily media monitoring email, prepared by my colleague Dudley sitting 20 feet away, arrived. Realizing CFO Arthur was copied on it, I replied: ”Hey Dudley- as of Monday we can delete CFO Arthur- he’s getting fired at 10am today.” And – ping- I sent the email back to Dudley.

Instantly I got an email from key client contact Simon. His message was brief: “Chris- this is not helpful.” You guessed it. I had sent my note to Dudley to the entire client leadership team, including to CFO Arthur, who on reading it, would be surprised to learn he was getting fired in an hour or so.

“Fuuuuuuurrrrrrrrrrrrrrkkkkkkkkkkkkkkk!” I screamed. (Dudley, who now works at investor relations  firm Magnus, remembers that yell well). I immediately called CFO Arthur’s secretary.

“Athena,” I said. “I need your…”

“Ahh Chris,” she interrupted. “Glad you called. Thank you so much for helping my daughter with that day’s work experience at one of your agencies. She loved it and it has helped her think about what she wants to do as a career.”

“That’s a pleasure Athena, now I need your…”

“Oh and Chris, “she interrupted again. “Thank you also for that recipe for your wife’s Grandmother’s ANZAC biscuits. They worked beautifully and we sold a lot at our fund raising event.”

“That’s fine Athena, now Athena..I NEED YOUR HELP, PLEASE!!!  Where is CFO Arthur? “ I asked.

“In a meeting with the other leaders,” she replied.

“Where is his Blackberry?” I panted.

“On my desk recharging,” Athena replied.

“Right, this is what I need please. Would you delete the email I just sent him, from his Blackberry, and from his computer, and ask all the secretaries to the leaders to delete the same off their boss’s emails.”

“Chris,’ she replied. “You can rely on me. It will be my pleasure. Take it as done.”

The email got deleted. CFO Arthur got fired with dignity and respect. (He became a very large client of ours at his bigger and better next job by the way). But the point is, Athena saved the day. Actually- my relationship with Athena saved the day.

You don’t make friends in a crisis. You have to build up that goodwill equity before the proverbial hits the fan. Like Saab, when the crash comes, you’ll see why the effort was worthwhile.

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11 Responses to How My SAAB Car Teaches Us A Critical Lesson In Business- And In Life

  1. Kate Lightfoot May 9, 2012 at 1:18 pm #

    Great stories, Chris. I really enjoyed that post.

    When I read your term “goodwill equity”, it clicked that my art director and I have formed a habit of doing just this – we call it “crediting our account”.

    That way, if we ever need to make a withdrawal from our “Phil account” or “Sam account”, there’ll be some credits there to fall back on.

    And we’ve taken a leaf from your book by paying particular care to the executive PA accounts. Man, you never want to let those fall into the red!


    • Chris Savage May 10, 2012 at 11:34 am #

      Thanks Kate- appreciated. Chris

  2. Kate Triggs May 9, 2012 at 2:07 pm #

    Hi Chris. Its been years…. I just wanted to say, I enjoy your posts and am always amazed at how you come up with a new piece of advice/home truth that touches a nerve each time, and impressed at how willingly you share a part of yourself in each of them. Great stuff. Kate

    • Chris Savage May 10, 2012 at 11:35 am #

      Thanks Kate. Good to hear from you, hope you are well and happy, and thanks for reading Possums. Chris

  3. Anna C May 9, 2012 at 5:00 pm #

    Thank goodness we’d built up some Goodwill Equity before I crashed it in the Hunter.

    • Chris Savage May 10, 2012 at 11:34 am #

      Good heavens! That’s right…so you did! At least you bought the car off me soon after! I was telling my son this morning that I had that car 13 years. I still miss it! And you of course! Chris

  4. Craig Charnock May 9, 2012 at 6:25 pm #

    Awesome Story, haha, real last minute Macgyver stuff.
    Pity about Saab!
    Keep em coming!

  5. miles May 10, 2012 at 9:06 pm #

    Just gold. Fantastic recovery Chris.

  6. Dinner companion from Jakarta April 9, 2013 at 8:36 pm #

    Here’s the Top Gear video that Chris refers to:

  7. Have you ever considered creating an ebook or
    guest authoring on other blogs? I have a blog based upon on
    the same subjects you discuss and would really like to have you share some
    stories/information. I know my subscribers would appreciate your work.
    If you’re even remotely interested, feel free to send me an e mail.


  1. A Secret About A World Business Leader And Client Service Excellence | Wrestling Possums - April 9, 2013

    […] work to build those relationships and build goodwill equity. You don’t make friends in a crisis.You make them before you need their help. I call it ‘Building Goodwill Equity.” And when you do stuff up, they will save you. Promise. […]

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