My early work experience and some of my greatest leadership examples come from A. Ahlström, a Finnish family company established in 1851. Starting there as an intern in 1984 while 13 years old, throughout the years I had the luxury of witnessing a company which sustained two world wars and always found ways to create new business and adapt to external changes. In 1931, A. Ahlström was the largest company in Finland, both in revenue and personnel. In the booming 1920s, they built several ocean-going ships in order to overcome the limitations of the contemporary merchant fleet of Finland; quite a feat for a forest & paper company.
At my time there the company was still led by the original Ahström family, which was no stranger to crises, having incorporated during the upheavals of the Crimean war in 1850s. I think this was one of the reasons the company was always managed and built with sustainability in mind – this was put in words by my late mentor & BaseN board member Jan Inborr, also himself a 45-year Ahlström veteran: Always have about three core competencies and business areas, so that each one of them can sustain the company during unexpected external changes.
This is how I run BaseN today – against the 2000s business mantra of concentrating in the one thing you do best. I think that in most industries we need to re-discover the power of sustainability, which is often sacrificed due to temporary cost savings and generational decay of innovation.
A. Ahlström’s leadership was also very up to date with new information and communication technologies, having Email in the 1980s (called Amail) and a global, 250-site IP network connecting factories and sales offices, in 1992; the latter engineered by me. In the words of CEO Krister Ahlström at the time, “We must utilize the latest digital technologies in order to maintain our competitive edge”, as we as IT formulated for his annual report.
Krister was, and is a visionary. Today his 1990s message resonates even more, as we are moving from digitalizing not only the supply chain and production, but moving into a new era of sustaining customers with primarily digital products having physical augmentation.
Most businesses used to the 200-year-old fire-and-forget business model this is a major change. The perpetual customer relationship and responsibility may sound like risks, but they are the only ways to reach real sustainability – financial, environmental and of generational, accumulating knowledge. For virtually all businesses.