Bengt Baron, BS 85, MBA 88, is enjoying a warm spring this year in Stockholm and looking forward to celebrating the the midsummer holiday by the shore with family. Since the fall, he has been working hard to learn all he can about the company that he now leads, Absolut Vodka. "Absolut has been such an amazing success story since 1979," says Baron, who was named president last December. "Now, I am trying to draw out the essence of the business and learn its history, while at the same time figure out how we can take it forward."
Baron made his path from UC Berkeley to Absolut by way of a few well known brands and, like many others, trying his hand at the Internet. After graduation he joined McKinsey & Co. Three years later he left consulting and worked for a series of consumer product companies; Coca-Cola Co.'s Stockholm operation, AB Frionor (a Norwegian frozen seafood company), and Kodak (in the Nordic region and the Baltics). "My Berkeley MBA gave me a solid foundation to take on business challenges of various sizes and shapes," says Baron. "Even though education cannot always give the answer, it can provide a methodology to approach the issue."
In November of 1999 he heard the siren song of the Internet and joined StepStone AS, an Internet-based job posting board. "The way that I figure it, I am probably too old to ever fully understand the Internet, but I am too young to be able to ignore it for the rest of my life," says Baron. As director of the Nordic Region, Baron helped the company grow from serving 4 countries to having a pan-European presence and a successful IPO. The company is still going strong, and it was only the lure of Absolut that convinced Baron to leave StepStone.
The number 2 vodka worldwide, Absolut is available in 125 countries, but all of the Absolut vodka is manufactured in one factory in southern Sweden. Absolut has a large market share in Sweden, but the sheer size of the market in the US makes the US its primary market. "I'd been doing quite a bit with marketing and sales for brands and consumer goods," says Baron. "There are not too many international Swedish brands and I have spent a lot of time in the US, which is Absolut's strongest market. So it was a combination that I couldn't turn down."
During his time in the US, Baron made his mark at Cal and in the Olympic Games. He won two Olympic medals, a gold and a bronze, swimming for the Swedish team in the 1980 (Moscow) and 1984 (Los Angeles) games. His wife Agneta, BS 85, also earned an Olympic silver medal. At this point, daughters Cecilia (10) and Linda (7) are both avid swimmers. "They are playing around with a lot of things right now, they need to find something they can enjoy," says Baron. "Hopefully its not swimming so there won't be so much pressure on them."
Baron looks fondly back on his time at Cal, although his first night in the states was a bit hair-raising. "It was a Friday night and we figured we would go out and do some shopping for the next morning's breakfast," says Baron. "You know how you feel after being awake for 30 hours of travel? We came out of our apartment and instead of taking the left turn we should have, we took the right turn. We walked straight into People's Park. That was a culture shock. But then the next morning we woke up and saw blue sky and looked over the bay towards the golden gate and thought - eh not too bad."
Now that he heads a vodka company, he does offer one bit of advice on which flavor to choose, "I am a citron guy. Try citron and tonic. It's excellent."
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