SHOCK TO THE SYSTEM
For 40 years, founder, owner and CEO Kenth Öhlin has given his all to the company that carries his name, Öhlins Racing AB. It has been a life-consuming passion
Late last year it was announced that Swede Kenth Öhlin would be stepping down from the CEO role of the company famous for its shock absorbers, but while he plans to slow down, he won’t stray far away from his lifelong passion.
“I have no intention to stop,” smiles Öhlin, “but I will take care of other tasks associated with Öhlins Group, and I will still be involved in the technology which is my real interest. I will however be more about the strategic side for Öhlins Racing as I continue on the board.”
The son of an engineer, Kenth was born north of Stockholm in 1949. He acknowledges how much he learnt from his parents. “They taught me the value of hard work early in life,” he says.
“I was raised at a mechanical workshop that my father owned, and lived in a small town that had quite a number of Swedish motocross riders who trained and competed nearby. I had the privilege to watch the great riders train, and built an interest in motocross and competed myself.
“I was born at the right time,” he continues. “Swedish motocross was blooming and one could take inspiration from talented engineers who worked on improving motorbikes. This was a period when there weren’t that many modifications available to buy; if you wanted to improve something, you had to do it yourself. And through my parents’ workshop I was able to learn the practical aspects from really skilled people with a great deal of expertise.”
First, though, came a motocross career, racing around the world with American and African technicians, giving him more opportunity to learn and inspire him to use that on his own machine.
“In the early 1970s, the contacts I made probably gave me a head start on many others,” recalls Öhlin. “In my motorcycle career I had been working with the damping characteristics and had knowledge of how bad the suspension was on a ’bike during this time. I decided to develop my own shock absorber, which would correct the weaknesses. During this time there were no products on the shelves so it wasn’t so hard to develop a new and better product. Today it’s a completely different story.”
Öhlins shock absorbers soon became a force to be reckoned with, helped by a world championship win in 1978. Husqvarna placed an order for 10,000 shock absorbers to equip their bikes.
“This showed that we were on the right track and could hold our own as an OEM,” says Kenth.
“At first we were alone in having a dedicated racing service. I took care of that myself for many years, packing my old Mercedes bus full and setting off around Europe every weekend, serviced shocks at races and then returned home to work on Monday evening. I had the bus fitted with shelves, cupboards, a workbench and a small washing machine. It’s not like it is today but it got the job done.
“Above all, we were available in the pits when we were needed!”
On four wheels, a European Touring Car Championship title followed in 1986, another of many successes the founder looks back on fondly. “To have had the chance to build this company from a ‘garage’ company to the large worldwide corporation we are today with a turnover of 100 million euro gives me pride,” he smiles. “Together with so many talented and hard workers we have been able to see so many great results together.”
For now though, it’s time for the Swede to throttle back a bit and savour the life around him. “Öhlins has been a huge part of my life for the past 40 years, perhaps too much! Öhlins has been 24 hours a day for me and unfortunately I have had not enough time for the family, my wife, children and grandchildren.
“I will still work, but at 80 per cent now. I will have more time with my family.” ■