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Percy Barnevik, president and CEO of ABB Asea Brown Boveri, was a corporate pioneer. He was moving more aggressively than any CEO in Europe, perhaps in the world, to build the new model of competitive enterprise – an organization that combines global scale and world-class technology with deep roots in local markets. He was working to give substance to the endlessly invoked corporate mantra, Think global, act local.
Headquartered in Zurich, ABB was a young company forged through the merger of two venerable European companies. Asea, created in 1883, has been a flagship of Swedish industry for a century. Brown Boveri, which took shape in 1891, holds a comparable industrial status in Switzerland. in August 1981, Barnevik altered the course of both companies when he announced that Asea, where he was managing director, would merge with Brown Boveri to create a potent new force in the European market for electrical systems and equipment.
The creation of ABB became a metaphor for the changing economic map of Europe. Barnevik initiated a wrenching process of consolidation and rationalization – layoffs, plant closings, product exchanges between countries – that observers agreed will one day come to European industries from steel to telecommunications to automobiles. And soon more than a metaphor, Barnevik’s bold moves triggered a wholesale restructuring of the Continent’s electrical power industry.