Nordic Heroes


The Story of an Extraordinary Company

That Transformed an Industry

By Dan Steinbock

AMACOM -- 375pp -- $27.95

It's one of the most compelling business sagas of the '90s. A Finnish conglomerate starts off the decade worrying about its plummeting toilet-paper sales to the fast-sinking Soviet Union. By the turn of the millennium, those same Finns, now focused on mobile phones, have outperformed both Ericsson and Motorola Inc. to turn Nokia Corp. into a global telecom player and are flying along, however briefly, as Europe's most valuable company. The story was well worth telling--but until recently, no writer had tried.

Now comes Dan Steinbock's The Nokia Revolution. Steinbock, a Finnish-born researcher at Columbia University's B-school, spares no detail in recounting the convoluted history of a company that began 135 years ago in the lumber business. Unfortunately, it's a rough and technical read, one that dwells too long on Nokia's first 125 years and not nearly enough on the past 10. What's more, since Steinbock had minimal access to the company and its top officials, the view from the inside is sorely lacking. Perhaps most serious, his project suffers from bad timing. Since Steinbock finished his writing, Nokia has stumbled, along with the rest of the phone industry. It has announced earnings warnings and shrinking demand for its handsets--and the once-golden stock has plummeted.

Still, having left the Motorolas of the world far behind, Nokia must now ask itself whether it can jump from its legacy technology--mobile radios--to become a leader of the next stage of the Internet. Can it compete with such Internet powerhouses as Microsoft Corp.? Here, Steinbock leaves readers in the dark.

He does, however, provide useful history. In the process, he dispels several myths about Nokia. One interesting section focuses on Kari Kairamo, the energetic CEO who led Nokia in the 1980s--and whose 1988 suicide left the company devastated. Kairamo was a charismatic leader, occasionally outrageous. He once stripped naked and challenged colleagues to a footrace through the snow. But he had serious ideas about how Finland, like Japan, could take on the world by investing in human capital. While the current generation of managers, led by CEO Jorma Ollila, often gets the credit for Nokia's success, Steinbock shows that, by stressing teamwork, globalism, and continuous education, Kairamo contributed greatly to a culture that a decade later let the company sweep the world.

Can Nokia lead the way in turning the mobile Web from a digital frontier for technogeeks into a consumer-friendly place? The company's future hinges upon doing just that. Success would place Nokia at the apex of the tech universe, selling Internet machines to as many as 1 billion Web surfers. In these post-bubble days, that vision leaves the financial markets cold. But company researchers are piecing together such a mobile Internet. Too bad Steinbock only hints at what promises to be the company's most fascinating chapter yet.

By Stephen Baker

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