What's "apres-moi le deluge" in Finnish? Someone should tell the ex-CEO of Nokia
Nov 14, 2013
The autobiography of Jorma Ollila, the CEO of Nokia during its glory years, has just been published but it will be difficult for most people to determine for themselves the subtle psychological interplay between the ego and the self of the man as he engineered and then tried to manage Nokia's enormous early successes in the mobile phone sector.
Why? A) because the book is in Finnish and there are apparently no plans to translate the 450-page long magnum opus into any other language. (which will limit the potential sales and readership a bit) and B) because the book is co-authored (i.e. at least part ghost-written) by someone else. So, in literary terms rather than getting everything straight from the horse's mouth we are, as it were, being fed stuff that has first been passed through its digestive tract.
Nonetheless we do glean some limited insight into the strategic thinking (or absence of it) on the part of Nokia's board of directors and top executives that eventually resulted in a massively successful company being bought to its knees and later acquired for the knock-down price of US$7.4 billion by Microsoft.
We also learn that Stephen Elop, he who is widely regarded as being the man most responsible for failing to reverse the decline in Nokia's fortunes, wasn't Ollila's first choice for the job of chief executive.
But we are left to wonder what might have been if another had been employed. It seems that the mysterious 'other' may well have been Tim Cook of Apple, although Jorma Ollila doesn't actually name his preferred candidate but instead restricts himself to a opining that for Mr. X the job "would have been right for himself and for Nokia".
Ollila's book is entitled "Mahdoton Menestys" which, I am told, translates into English as either "An Impossible Success" or "An Unlikely Success". As such it is, apparently, an apologia for Ollila's time at the helm and a rationale of the decisions he took as master of the good ship Nokia.
I don't know about you but my knowledge of Finnish is rudimentary in the extreme. Perhaps that's why to my English language-biased sensibilities "mahdoton menestys" is redolent of some some immense but remarkably obstinate and sluggish prehistoric creature contentedly chomping low-hanging fruit in a Jurassic swamp whilst ignoring the fiery asteroid that is on course to wipe it out of existence. Any similarity to Nokia is not entirely coincidental.
As far as Mr. Ollila's book is concerned I am very grateful to Olli Sulopuisto of the splendidly named "Norse Code" blog for providing a precis of the content in English.
Olli Sulopuisto writes, "Ollila doesn't mind asserting his alpha status. When Nokia started looking for foreign investment, one of the first investors was George Soros. Ollila, who was Nokia's then CFO, handled the negotiations. "Soros didn't strike me as an exceptionally tough, impressive or charismatic". There is of course no record of what Mr. Soros thought about Jorma Ollila.
Ollila was Nokia’s CEO from 1992 to 2006 and he was also company chairman from 1999 to 2012. As such he was there when Nokia came blazing out of the tundra to conquer the mobile world and was there even as it collapsed into an almost irrelevant has-been.
Ollila's book ends at the point he relinquished his position as Nokia's chairman and thus either does not cover, or perhaps expediently ignores, the mismanagement and missteps that to all intents and purposes destroyed the company.
Echoing the words of Chou En Lai, the premier of Communist China under Mao Tse Tung, who once said that it is far too soon to attempt to assess the effects of the French Revolution, Mr Ollila believes that "It is too early to assess Nokia's recent years." Really? The rest of the world doesn't share that view.
What Ollila does say is that "Maybe Nokia concentrated too much on cellular technologies. Maybe Nokia should've studied other wireless technologies butt renewing the entire strategy of a corporation isn't easy when you've grown into a global market leader."
No, it's not easy but that is what was necessary and it was his and his executive's responsibility to make every effort to do so. In the event, they failed but the ex-CEO doesn't particularly blame himself or his senior colleagues for the sad decline. Instead it was, it seems, down to a shortage of sufficiently skilled homegrown software engineers.
To stay ahead of the curve, Nokia had to recruit first from elsewhere in Europe and later, horror of horrors, even from the US. However, the incomers didn't solve the problems quickly enough and then in 2007 the iPhone turned the world, and Nokia, upside down.
Ollila also blames US carriers for the company's difficulties because they has always told Nokia that US consumers wouldn't buy smartphones costing more than $300 - then the iPhone arrived at more than $600 a pop and just flew off the shelves leaving Noka mdels to languish as unsold inventory. Ollila also complains that the US manufacturers and carriers had it in for Nokia because at its apogee the company commanded a 20 per cent share of the US market. In other words it was a matter of jealosy and sour grapes.
In other words, "Some big American boys did it and then didn't run away but stayed to kick Nokia's arse again and again."
Jorma Ollila does mention other contributory factors such as bureaucracy, the lack of a sense of urgency and immediacy, an unwillingness to transform and a mind-set and corporate culture that resulted in the slavishly following of plans laid down 18 months earlier and adhered to despite convulsive changes in the market.
All-in-all then it seems Nokia failed because of the above plus an inability either to anticipate or meet changing customers' requirements and failure to develop new software. This was compounded by ever-increasing competition in the smartphone market and the influx of cheap but good basic and feature-phone handsets from Asia.
And this from the man who said Nokia would never make clamshell handsets because the millions of consumers who wanted them were deluded. They weren't of course and they simply went elsewhere to buy what they wanted. Mr Ollila also took against touch-screen models for much the same reason. He called them "predators" (whatever that means) but in the end it was Nokia that was predated, ripped apart and eaten. RIP.
PS. Mr Ollila has high hopes of becoming a Microsoft board member.