Lessons from 157 Years of Business Evolution, Sustainability, and Resilience

My first private sector job was at A. Ahlstrom, a Finnish, but early globalized conglomerate originally established in 1865; also a BaseN customer since 2002. At the time of my first summer job in 1986, They made all kinds of paper, packaging and wooden materials, in addition to industrial pumps and power plant/factory boilers. The IT unit I joined, had more than 100 people while the company employed some 21.000 in total.

Since 1865, Ahlstrom, still a family-owned company upon my time there, had already seen many transformations, with different business areas coming and going. The one feature I remember fondly was the ability to withstand great changes around the company, be those the Great Depression, 70s oil crisis or world wars. Finland, at 101 years now, is half a century younger than this company.

During a wonderful internal management course, I was privileged to spend lot of time in their ceremonial headquarter mansion in Noormarkku in western Finland. After the official program, I spent quite some time in the private library, which contained a massive amount of records ranging from financials to mergers and acquisitions and business plans, all remarkably well arranged since 1865.

I was particularly inspired by the early 1900s, during which the company acquired and established multiple sawmills while rapidly increasing prepared wood production. Products were primarily transported by sail ships, a snmall number of which formed the tiny Finnish merchant fleet. Ahlstrom quickly realized that the fleet’s capacity is limited, and – after some heavy contemplation – decided to build several ocean-going sailships by themselves. Some of these ships survive to this day, although many of them were part of war reparations demanded by the Soviet Union in 1944.

When I created the first web page for Ahlstrom in 1992, it featured one of those ships alongside with a modern ocean racer – by then, the company didn’t make ships anymore, but provided advanced fiber materials for contemporary sailboats. In other words, some of the shipbuilding legacy was preserved. A couple of months later, when the head of communications heard about the page (and about the Internet), she scorned me of making us looking like a shipbuilder in the digital world!

While I believe I got the best leadership training from Finnish Air Force, Ahlstrom gave me invaluable lessons on sustainability and long term thinking. Now after running BaseN for 18 years, those things just seem to become more and more important in our not-so-stable world now. Just like 100 years ago, a sustainable company needs continuous analysis on various strengths and opportunities what comes to people and resources. Concentrating on narrow lines of business, which was the major trend of the 1990s, might easily destroy a century of successful business as almost happened to Nokia of Finland.

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