Trying to present a large, multinational firm in the best possible public light at all times is an art form. Overcoming poor public perception whilst trying to deliver bad news is a delicate balancing act. It takes superb knowledge of your audience, class, finesse and a little bit of humour at times to do the job well to avoid losing your credibility and getting shelled by the press and public alike.
Jan-Willem Vester was a true master at the art of automotive diplomacy. He worked alongside Jay Spenchian at Cadillac and when Mr. Spenchian came over to Saab in 2005, he eventually brought Jan-Willem with him. Manager of Saab Corporate Communications from 2006 until early this year, he was the public face of Saab and frequently, the man on the hot seat throughout the GM-Saab divorce. But he was much more than just the guy in charge of the news at Saab.
I met Jan-Willem at SOC in 2006 in Lake George, NY. This was the first time that Saab-GM had come out in full support of an SOC since 1998, and GM had promised to send the entire Saab Heritage Collection out of Sterling Heights so that Saabistas of every stripe could have a stare at what a better than brand new 99 Turbo, Sonnet, SPG or 9000 looks like. As the collection was being offloaded, I was standing off to the side, staring wide-eyed at the freshly restored Swedish metal as it hit the pavement. After the 99 Turbo came off the truck, a rather dusty Scarabe Green C900 convertible came down the ramp. I gave Dick Ballsley, the then-curator of the Heritage Collection a nudge. “Hey, Dick! There’s one that missed the wash rack.” Dick adjusted his glasses and smiled. “Not one of ours. That belongs to the new head of PR, Jan-Willem Vester.” Whoa. A Saab guy actually holding a key position at Saab-GM?
Later on that evening, I was at dinner and a very tall, well spoken fellow with a slight accent asked if he might sit next to me. Pulling up a chair, I asked him to make himself at home. The fellow asked me a lot of questions…….who I was, what I drove, why Saabs and not, say BMWs? I answered all of his questions and finally asked him who he was. He smiled and introduced himself. All I could stammer out was “You own the convertible!” His eyes twinkled and he told me all about his Saab, where it came from and how much fun it was to drive. He also told me about his 1984 900 GLi back in the Netherlands. It was clear that Jan-Willem not only knew as much about Saabs as your next Saabista, but he clearly had a passion for the marque. He understood where Saab came from, but he also knew where Saab was (or should be) heading.
We met up again in Troy in 2007. This time, we got to meet his lovely wife, Mariska, and their two children. And the convertible made another appearance at the People’s Choice area at the show on Friday afternoon. Jan-Willem had shined the car to perfection and it sat amidst the other C900s proudly. Jan-Willem told us about the latest addition to the family, a recent model 9-5 Aero wagon, all the better to keep his daughter safe on her way back and forth to school.
Jan-Willem came out to Massachusetts for SOC08 at Devens, just a few weeks after having surgery to remove a brain tumour. Nothing, it appeared, was going to stop him from meeting his old Saab friends and making new ones. As I was unlocking the doors to the convention centre early Saturday morning, I saw a very tall jogger burning up the trail. Walking outside, I saw that it was Jan-Willem. Nothing, it appeared, was going to stand in the way of his other passion, jogging. In point of fact, not long after the SOC, Jan-Willem entered the Chicago Marathon and finished with a very respectable time.
We were all upset when GM purged over 1200 people in March of 2009, one of them Jan-Willem, who had worked for GM for 16 years. I spoke to him the day I found out about the purge. Even though the news was bad, Jan-Willem was still upbeat, still hoping for the best possible outcome for Saab.
The tumour resurfaced about five months ago. We were all hopeful for another good outcome, but alas, it was not to be. Jan-Willem Vester, husband, father, friend, diplomat par excellence, passed away Sunday night after a courageous battle with cancer.
People should remember Jan-Willem for his work with Saab, his bright smile, his way with words. But he should also be remembered as a Saab person. Jan-Willem may have worked for GM, but he was truly one of us.
Respectfully submitted by Linnea Krajewski,
Secretary, Saab Owners’ Club of North America