“My only interest … was that I wanted to be a teacher”

Leif Nilsson

A life of dazzling experiences


Text by Andrew Howitt  /  Photos by Chris Lloyd

In northern Sweden, there is a small town called Lycksele that is frequently treated to the dazzling light shows of the Aurora Borealis. Leif Nilsson, general manager for Asia–Pacific at Scandinavian Airlines (SAS), was fortunate enough to grow up beneath this radiant spectacle.

We get to enjoy the Northern Lights — that Japanese people pay so much to go and see — and we have it every night,” he says. “We could play hockey on the street because the light was so strong. There weren’t that many street lights, but you could see the whole street very clearly.”

When Nilsson was 12 years old, he left Lycksele and moved with his family to Stockholm. After university and military service, he completed a Master’s course in business, economics and social studies and then spent a year specialising in teaching at Uppsala University.

“My only interest, after finishing military service, was that I wanted to be a teacher,” he states. “I got my licence to teach and taught economics at a high school for two years.”

Nilsson had a strong theoretical foundation in finance and business, but when an opportunity arose at SAS, he thought a couple of years at a company would be a good way to get some practical experience in his field — before returning to the classroom a better-informed teacher. However, his experience in the business world ended up dazzling him more than he could have imagined.

“After one year, I said, ‘Please take back my books and everything, I don’t need them anymore’. It was so fantastic to work at the company,” Nilsson says. “I closed the door on my teaching career and moved into SAS.”

In 1946, the three national carriers of Denmark, Norway and Sweden realised they were too small to compete on the international stage and merged to form SAS. Five years later, the firm became one of the first airlines in Europe to establish operations in Japan. Those early flights between Scandinavia and Japan took 55 hours and required nine stops.

In 1980, the company was struggling financially — with losses of $17 million annually — and Jan Carlzon became CEO. By 1983, he had completely transformed the firm: SAS was profitable again and received the Airline of the Year award.


“All the young people wanted to work for SAS,” Nilsson recalls. “It was on top of the world at that time.”

After several years in Stockholm doing a range of different jobs, he was offered the position of business controller in Bangkok in 1999. He and his wife had discussed the possibility of moving abroad and saw this as the opportunity they had been waiting for to get out and see the world.

“It has always been our interest to travel,” states Nilsson. “Our parents often told my wife and me to save up for an apartment, but we always went travelling as soon as we got some money.”

Since moving to Thailand, Nilsson’s career has been centred on Asia. He also held positions at SAS’s cargo firm in Tokyo and Beijing before taking up his current position as general manager for Asia–Pacific.

This year, Nilsson is focused on increasing traffic between Scandinavia and Japan. Haneda airport will be opening 50 more slots for airlines, and he is determined to secure one for SAS.

“It’s a very humble goal,” he states, “but it will help passengers from Scandinavia reach more destinations in Japan.”

Over the years, Nilsson and his wife have travelled extensively. Japan, in particular, has dazzled the couple. And they have certainly made the most of their time here, travelling to all 47 prefectures.

“I keep a map marking all the places I’ve driven and where I’ve been,” says Nilsson.

He highlights, as being particularly memorable, trips to the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route in Toyama, onsens in the mountains of Beppu in Kyushu, and Mount Nokogiri in Chiba.

“If you stay at home, you feel restless, like you should be using the day in a better way,” he observes. “That’s what drives me — wanting to see and experience new things.” 

Do you like natto?


Time spent working in Japan: Ten years in total; first four, and now six.

Career regret (if any): No. Luckily, being in a company as big as SAS, I’ve come into new positions in different departments at the time I wanted them.

Favourite saying: Escalate possible solutions, don’t escalate problems.

Favourite book: For non-fiction, Jan Carlzon’s Moments of Truth. For fiction, Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy.

Cannot live without: Family.

Lesson learned in Japan: Mistakes happen, but the focus in Japan is to learn from your mistakes; to document each one and ensure that it does not happen again.

Secret of success in business: Deliver more than expected.

Favourite place to dine: Bulgari Il Ristorante, when there’s a jazz event on. They have a fantastic chef there, Luca Fantin.

Do you like natto?: I’ve tried it, but no. I prefer a kind of fermented fish from Sweden called Surströmming.