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No hard feelings...


No hard feelings...
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By Antti Bläfield
      Last Thursday week, the President and Group CEO of the Nordea banking group Lars G. Nordström was in Helsinki saying his farewells.
      The Swede at the head of Finland's - and Scandinavia's - largest bank will be heading into retirement at the end of this month.
      The Finns have no trouble getting along with Nordström, because he behaves like a Finn is expected to behave: taciturn, and direct when he does open his mouth.
      But for all that he is still a Swede, and this fact came out in interesting fashion when Nordström gave his final press conference to Finnish journalists as the head of a major bank.
Only a few days before Finland went to the polls, Nordström had the understanding that there was nothing particularly interesting to be expected in the Parliamentary elections.
      He expressed this viewpoint more or less immediately after Helsingin Sanomat had published its own opinion poll that confirmed the trend of those commissioned by broadcasters YLE and MTV3 - namely that support for the Social Democrats was ebbing and that the conservatives of the opposition National Coalition Party were gaining ground.
      The possibility of a centre-right coalition government being formed - something that just a month previously would have been considered an almost absurd outcome - had turned into a distinctly plausible alternative.
The discussions at the bank's offices on Helsinki's Aleksanterikatu - the former headquarters of first the Union Bank of Finland and later its brief incarnation Merita Bank - show graphically what little interest the day-to-day political events in Finland offer to the CEO of a large Nordic bank.
      It was not always thus.
      It used to be that national politics were decided upon in the boardrooms of the banks. The Union Bank's General Director Rainer von Fieandt was a Prime Minister in the late 1950s. Göran Ehrnrooth, another UBF President, was an eminence grise in Finnish life for many years, and Matti Virkkunen, who held the same position with the rival Kansallis Bank for over 20 years, even dared to cross swords with President Urho Kekkonen at the time when Kekkonen was a serious force to be reckoned with.
Their successors - Kansallis Bank's Jaakko Lassila and Union Bank's Mika Tiivola - were also prominently seen and heard in public and in private dining rooms behind the scenes.
      They were members of the boards of countless organisations and companies, and their unofficial network of influence extended far wider even than the leather boardroom chairs they occupied.
      Basically they had nobody above them, for the banks' own boards and councils were peopled by the representatives of the banks's biggest customers, in other words the people they lent money to.
The recession crushed this concentration of power when it steamrollered over Finland at the beginning of the 1990s.
      When Merita (itself the result of the merging of Kansallis Bank and UBF) was joined with Sweden's Nordbanken some ten years ago, one of the first actions of the new Nordea was to sell off the bank's holdings in companies that were not in the banking and financial services sector, and to reduce its participation in the governance of outside companies.
      Lars G. Nordström, for instance, sits on the boards of only two companies - telecoms operator TeliaSonera and the ferry operators Viking Line.
Finland has become for Nordea a market - no more, no less - and the modus operandi of the bank's management reflects this.
      The wishes and the behaviour of the Finnish customers interest the bank, and so of course do the actions of Nordea's competitors in the branch. But more general meddling in Finnish life is of no interest to the bank, as it is not thought to promote Nordea's own commercial operations.
      A small indicator of the bank's willingness to withdraw to the role of being merely a provider of financial services came with the winding-up of the well-respected periodical Unitas, which had in its time been an important tool for the Union Bank management with which to take part in public discussion and build contacts with other centres of power in the country as a whole.
What we are dealing with here is not the attitude of one bank or one bank's CEO, but is rather a reflection of a new time. There are more and more corporate leaders like Nordström in Finnish life.
      They lead significant companies operating in this country. They are top professionals, and to them Finland is an important operating environment, but they have no wish to get invovled in matters external to their work.
These are not necessarily only the foreign managers of foreign-based companies active in Finland, but increasingly they are the Finnish CEOs of Finnish corporations.
      They have gathered their professional expertise from around the world, and they do not have any great passions towards Finland as such. Today Helsinki, tomorrow perhaps somewhere else.
      We also already have a crop of foreigners in significant positions managing large Finnish concerns. A good example of this new corporate captain is for instance Simon Beresford-Wylie, the Australian CEO of the new mobile and fixed-line phone network venture created by Nokia and Siemens.
For these new-age managers, it appears to be natural to separate work and other aspects of life.
      Work is about running the company, where success is measured out in the market by the way the customers and the stock exchanges react. They may have political opinions, but in contrast to the earlier generation of corporate bosses they do not actively wish to sit in on discussions where politics are shaped.
      Some of them indeed are so alienated from politics that their personal assistants have their hands full getting them to keep these views to themselves.
      The counterweight to hard work in the office is not spending leisure hours with other company leaders but retiring into their own personal space with the family. In interviews, they often stress the importance of family in a quite different fashion from the Finnish managers of yore.
This change in approach nevertheless does not make them any the more empathetic as managers - in fact the opposite is true.
      Without any unnecessarily close ties to Finnish society, they are equipped to be able to shut down production plants and make employees redundant more directly and more dispassionately than the former generation, who often talked a hard talk but whose actions were ultimately more directed towards preserving national consensus.
      No hard feelings, say the new directors. No feelings whatsoever, some others might say.
From the perspective of the politicians, the new business leaders are a relief in a way: the country can now be governed in peace and without interference.
      The other side of the coin is that the actions of managers and directors are increasingly hard to predict, and they can no longer be appealed to by such naive considerations as the national interest. The markets determine how they will act.
      At the same time, dark clouds of nationalism, all too familar from history, can be seen on the horizon. They are there in China just as in the United States, in Japan just as in Russia, and in Europe as much as in South America.
      The politicians' job is a more lonely one than before - and the responsibility all the greater.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 21.3.2007
The writer is a Helsingin Sanomat editorial columnist.

ANTTI BLÅFIELD / Helsingin Sanomat

  27.3.2007 - THIS WEEK
 No hard feelings...

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