By Sigurd Neubauer
An estimated 4.5 million Americans have Norwegian ancestry while most of the Norwegian immigrants came in the nineteenth century, according to Nettavisen.
Kjell Bergh, a Norwegian-born immigrant turned entrepreneur in the automotive industry, would end up becoming America’s preeminent importer of Volvo. He started out in 1967 with $50 to his name.
“I have always been intrigued by America,” the self-made entrepreneur says, “especially about its role during World War II and how it pertained to Norway.”
Born in 1945, he grew up playing in German bunkers in the town of Kristiansund built during the Nazi-occupation. His family later moved to Oslo, but Bergh would spend summers as a child in Kristiansund.
A knack for journalism, Bergh launched the first automotive section for a community newspaper during high school even though he wasn’t old enough to get his driver’s license.
“I was able to write about new cars and test driving, which landed me an invitation in 1965 to visit the Ford Motor Company in Dearborn, Michigan.”
During his first trip to America, which was only supposed to last weeks, Bergh ended up spending 13 months visiting 43 states as well as Canada and Mexico. “I took odd jobs here and there to support my travels, which was made possible by having obtained a U.S. Green Card prior to arriving.” Bergh also reported for Vi Menn, a Norwegian men’s lifestyle magazine, known for its racy women and yes, cars.
Kjell Bergh is active in numerous civic organizations in the U.S. and Norway
Following his return to Norway, Bergh enrolled at the University of Oslo for preparatory courses in logic and Greek mythology but “quickly found myself bored out of my mind. A year later, I returned to the U.S.,” he recalls.
His journey to Minnesota – where he eventually would purchase his first car dealership – began in Delaware where he joined a moving company providing supplies for U.S. troops in Vietnam, a job Bergh held for three months.
From there, the youngster traveled to Minnesota to reunite with his brother, Einar, who had “just married a nice girl from Sioux Falls, South Dakota.”
In 1967, Kjell Bergh was about to have a rendezvous with destiny.
Once he arrived in Golden Valley, Minnesota, Bergh was offered a job selling cars at Borton Volvo Cars.
“I had only committed myself to this job for 3 months as I was prepared to move on to bigger and better things, including reporting on the Scandinavian community in Seattle, Washington,” he recalls with a chuckle.
“Oscar Borton saw something in me, which I hadn’t seen in myself. Because he had no children and he was already in his 70s, he offered to sell me his dealership.”
Next, Borton, who was also of Norwegian ancestry, provided Bergh with a financing plan to purchase the small dealership within a five-year period.
Oscar Borton saw something in me, which I hadn’t seen in myself
The youngster, who was 22 years-old when he purchased the dealership, was able to do so within three years. Next, he enrolled at Macalester College where he obtained a Bachelor’s degree in international relations and journalism. He has since earned a Master’s in international affairs from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.
In 1967, Bergh met his first wife, Maria, a young woman from Tanzania who was teaching at a local Catholic girls’ school. She grew up in an orphanage but was taken under the wings of an American teacher from Onamia, Minnesota, who provided her with a scholarship.
Shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court issued its Loving v. Virginia decision, which rejected race-based marriage laws, Bergh became one of the first in America to enjoy an inter-racial marriage. They remained married for 36 years.
Bergh has been married to his second wife, Donna, for 16 years.
When Bergh purchased Borton Volvo Cars, the dealership was in the lowest 10 percentile in annual sales of all its Volvo counterparts across the nation, he recalls. In 1974, he purchased his second car dealership in Rochester, Minnesota, specializing in Pontiac, Saab and Volvo. In the process, he also built a car leasing company and bought a travel company, Vanstrum, which specializes in Scandinavia but was founded in 1896 by Swedish immigrants.
“I wanted to honor Borton’s legacy by naming all of my American businesses after him,” Bergh explains, adding that he changed the name of his travel company from Vanstrum to Borton Oversees.
Beyond Norway and Scandinavia, Burton has also promoted U.S. tourism to Tanzania and served as the country’s honorary Consul and Dean from 2000-2015.
In 1988, Bergh built the first Volvo dealership in Palm Beach, Florida, which quickly developed into one of the top dealerships in the country. Four years later, he built a separate dealership for Volkswagen in Palm Beach but sold the two dealerships some two decades later.
Rise of China
China has since purchased Volvo.
“Right now, there’s a rush to paint China as evil,” Bergh says in reference to mounting U.S.-Chinese strategic competition. “We’re whipping ourselves into fearing the Chinese,” something Bergh concedes, “he doesn’t like.”
Pointing to the former Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, the entrepreneur argues that “at the peak of the Cold War,” Washington still managed to do “business” with Moscow.
He quips: “Unlike Russia, the Chinese leadership is a rational one as it operates within a level of predictability,” a reference he’s making to President Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade neighboring Ukraine in February of last year.
Bergh nonetheless asserts that China is a major competitor both commercially and strategically, especially militarily.
On what the Chinese takeover of Volvo in 2010 means, Bergh says: “This is without any doubt the best thing that could have happened to Volvo. The Chinese understood Volvo and was willing to provide as much capital as was needed while at the same time allowing the company to forge ahead.”
He’s referring to when the Chinese carmaker Zhejiang Geely Holding Group paid $1.3 billion in cash for Volvo and issued a $200 million note payable to Ford to complete the acquisition.
Bergh argues that Ford’s initial acquisition of Volvo in 1999 became “a failure.”
On what’s next for the automotive market, the entrepreneur explains that there’s “one overriding focus: Tesla.”
“Elon Musk’s company changed the game entirely as Tesla is good looking, fast and a fun car to drive. The company has proven that there are many alternatives” to what Bergh describes as the traditional car “which was sort of bulky” in design.
When it comes to Tesla’s EV technology, “everyone is attempting to catch up.” For Volvo, “this means by 2025 it wants to transform into a 50 percent EV car business. By 2030, it wants to be a 100 percent EV car business,” he adds.
China's takeover of Volvo was without any doubt the best thing that could have happened to the company: Bergh
Bergh, who has been at the forefront of the U.S.-Scandinavian business community for decades, including through his membership in the Norwegian-American Chamber of Commerce and the Swedish-American Chamber of Commerce, has since been inscribed into the Scandinavian-American Hall of Fame.
The self-made entrepreneur also enjoys a close relationship with the royal family of Norway.
In 1969, King Olav V bestowed upon him the Knight First Class, Royal Order of Merit. A few decades later – in 1983 – the King awarded Bergh the St. Olav Medal.
And in 1988, King Carl Gustaf of Sweden bestowed upon him the Gold medal, Royal Order of the Polar Star.
In 1996, the Berghs hosted the royal family of Norway – King Harald V, Queen Sonia, Crown Prince Haakon Magnus and Princess Märtha Louise – for a safari exursion in Tanzania.
More recently, in November of last year, Bergh provided Queen Sonia of Norway with transportation and security during her visit to Minnesota.
We conclude our interview by discussing whether the American Dream is still alive.
“I firmly believe that the American Dream is still very much achievable, including for immigrants. Immigrants statistically create a lot of jobs by starting companies here,” Bergh asserts then quips:
“It is also instructive to note that many of the largest American-based global corporations either now or recently have had CEOs who were either immigrants or first-generation Americans. That includes, Google, Microsoft, Coke, Pepsi, 3M, Cargill, Ethan Allen Furniture, Ford, and Tesla, among others.”