Jorma Ollila, Chairman of Nokia Corp., the Finnish cell-phone giant, recalls exactly where he was when the changes began a decade ago. On Nov. 10, 1989, Ollila, then Nokia's 39-year-old CFO, was vacationing with his family in the south of France. The Berlin Wall had fallen the night before. "I told my kids, `This is big. The map of Europe is changing,"' recalls Ollila.
He had no inkling then of the key role he would play in creating the new Europe. When the Wall fell, Nokia was a company in transition. A year earlier, the CEO had committed suicide. His strategy of building a conglomerate producing everything from computers to rubber boots across the Continent appeared doomed. Ollila, previously a banker at Citibank's London office, had a grasp of the global economy and was itching to try out what he knew. As markets opened up, he reasoned, even companies in small countries could become world players if they had the right focus. Ollila's chance came two months after the Wall fell, when he was appointed manager of Nokia's tiny mobile-phone business.
The timing couldn't have been better. Finland's economy, wedged between the Soviet Union and Europe, was convulsing as the Russian market collapsed. A banking crisis swept the nation in 1991. Nokia was floundering and the board cast about for someone with a new vision. They found him at the cell-phone division and stunned everyone, including Ollila himself, by naming him CEO.
Mobile phones then were viewed as a frightfully expensive business tool. But Ollila foresaw that as they became cheaper and lighter, they could become a consumer rage. What's more, Europe was just then settling on a united standard, known as GSM. With a Continental phone market beckoning, Ollila sold most of Nokia's other businesses. Through the first half of the decade, Nokia battled in Europe with its Scandinavian neighbor, Ericsson, while Motorola Inc. dominated in the U.S. By the late 1990s, Nokia was global leader in mobile communications. Ollila scored with the idea that the phone was as much fashion accessory as tool, hiring designers from Europe and California to give Nokia phones their distinctive look.
The next challenge for Ollila is the Internet. By 2003, about a third of the 1 billion phones forecast to be in use will be Web-surfers. This makes Nokia a crucial player in the Net's future. Ollila, who watched history changing a decade ago, may now have the chance to change it himself.