ESPOO, Finland – March 11, 2011 was a sad day for a number of people inside Nokia, specifically the global communications team, as it marked the departure of Arja Suominen, the former communications head who had been an enormous part of the company for more than 25 years. Before she left, Conversations took five minutes to talk with Arja about her 25 years at the company and what it’s taught her about Nokia and its future.
NC: What was Nokia like when you first joined in 1986?
AS: The difference is enormous. You have to remember that 25 years ago, portable phones were very niche products: we’d only just launched the first model. It would be another two years until the Mobira Cityman, the first handheld mobile phone would launch.
So at that point, our main businesses were wood pulp, paper, rubber and cables. Toilet paper was one of our major earners. We supplied the UK with 30 per cent of its toilet paper needs! More in some other countries.
We hardly had any people working in electronics. The people who were the beginnings of our phone business occupied a corner of one of the long, thin cable warehouses. Telecoms accounted for less than ten per cent of our revenue.
NC: So when did the change come?
AS: Like any ambitious company, Nokia was looking for growth and was investing heavily in electronics, which was seen as a business for the future. At the same time Nokia was giving up divisions which weren’t core. Not all the changes were smooth. For example, the consumer electronic division making TVs was making losses. Nokia was actually making losses in the early nineties, when Jorma Ollila – in 1992- became CEO. He decided that telecommunications should become Nokia’s main focus. Many people found that a very unsettling decision, certainly very brave – but that helps me to put the current changes in perspective.
When we wanted to divest ourselves of the other sections of the business, we didn’t just shut them down. Instead, we were very careful to try to find them a new home. We sold our vehicle tires business to the Helsinki Stock Exchange, for example. Nokia Footwear decided to spin itself off and was Finland’s biggest management buy-out at the time. The same will happen today: some people will need to move on, but we’ll help them find something new.
NC: And what were you doing at that point?
AS: I already worked in Communications at that time. Initially, it was my job to produce the internal company newsletter. Of course, we didn’t even have email at that point, so this was a paper production. I recall many hours of photocopying and stapling to get the thing together. If I recall correctly, in 1994, Nokia started its first internet site. The next year I became responsible for the communications for Finland. At that stage, Finland represented nearly half the company, but Nokia was already on its way to becoming an international company.
NC: What do you recall of the early mobile phones and which ones stand out?
AS: I remember looking at the first mobile phone, Mobira Cityman which hardly fitted to my handbag. It was a real brick – really hard to imagine that these things would become part of everyone’s daily life. And at that point, we didn’t even call them Nokia devices, because the company was better known for rubber and paper. You wouldn’t buy a phone from Andrex, would you?
But the device became really famous. Especially when President Gorbachev of the Soviet Union visited Finland. He used the phone to talk to one of his deputies back in the USSR and was really amazed.
By the nineties we were releasing phones under our own name. The first one that really spoke to me personally was the Nokia 2110 released in 1994, perhaps because it was the first one that came in different colours. I chose red – my favourite colour. It was also the first one with the famous Nokia ringtone.
After that, it would be the Nokia 8810. That was one of the first to use brushed aluminium which made it feel high quality. It’s interesting that this is still the way with our latest models. I’m now using a Nokia E7 which has a very similar feel, though its light years ahead in other ways, of course.
There have been many different phones that have been truly remarkable, though their model numbers escape me now. Mainly, for me, because of their design: so many of these things have been true things of beauty.
NC: Working in the Comms office, you must have heard some strange stories about Nokia. Which ones stand out?
AS: I always like the survival stories. It really shows that we’re obviously doing something right. Stories about people finding a working Nokia phone in the belly of a freshly-caught fish. Construction workers who’ve dropped their Nokia 20 metres onto concrete and it still works. I also like the ones that reflect how strong the brand is: in Indonesia, for example, it wasn’t uncommon for children to be christened with the name ‘Nokia’.
We also sometimes get mixed up with the town of Nokia. So we get weird stories about how we’re to blame for certain road ordinances and so forth.
NC: What would you like to tell colleagues you’re leaving behind?
AS: Though I was entitled to have my own office, I always chose to sit with my department members in the open office. There’s an important principle in that which we should not forget about – always listening to other people and being a part of the work.
I remember how very many big changes there have been at Nokia. Very dramatic changes. But we have always survived.
Survival is in our DNA. The fighting spirit is in our DNA. Transformation is in our DNA.
When we started in mobile phones, it was a really big risk. These were luxury gadgets that cost $4000 in today’s money. But we believed in them. We thought that we could bring these devices to the masses. And we did. Nokia is responsible for bringing mobile phones to ordinary people. What an amazing thing to have done. With belief and determination we can change the world.
NC: Any advice to us people running Nokia Conversations?
AS: Conversations always brings me great pleasure. It’s been an enormous success – it’s now the fourth most popular corporate blog. I’d love you to continue to increase the reach and readership figures. The increasing number of languages will certainly drive that.
But there’s something more important than that. It must always remain a place where people can discuss, argue and raise new questions. You started a true dialogue and that’s something very precious.
Arja Suominen now joins another great Finnish company, Finnair, as the senior vice president of corporate communications and social responsibility. Everyone at Conversations wishes her all the best!