Finns mourn loss of national icon Nokia

HELSINKI — Finland’s biggest corporate success story is over and Finns are trying to make sense of what’s left.

Liisa Hannula, a 26-year-old soon-to-be teacher in Helsinki, has always had a Nokia phone. Now she says she might opt for a Samsung smartphone instead.

“Nokia is one of Finland’s main brands and it’s what I tell people abroad – that Nokia phones are from Finland,” she said. “Now I can’t say that anymore.”

The sale of Nokia’s handset business to Microsoft sent shock waves through its home country, where the phones are a source of national pride and at one point were carried by 90 percent of Finns. After introducing its first handsets three decades ago, Nokia emerged as Finland’s first major global corporation and symbolized the country’s transformation into a technology-driven economy.

Nokia, based near Helsinki in Espoo, took off in the 1990s to become the world’s largest mobile-phone maker. At its peak in 2000, it generated about 4 percent of Finland’s gross domestic product. That fell to about minus 0.2 percent in 2012, an unsustainable position driven by heavy losses, according to Jyrki Ali-Yrkkoe, an economist at Helsinki-based researcher ETLA. The deal with Microsoft will help it generate as much as 0.3 percent of GDP next year, he said.

“Nokia has been the flagship company in Finland even as its fortunes have waned,” Ali-Yrkkoe said by phone. “It’s going to take some time for Finland to recover from the shock and get used to the new Nokia.”

Nokia started as a wood-pulp and paper company in 1865 before expanding into rubber, electronics and eventually telecommunications. Once the world’s largest smartphone maker, Nokia’s market share topped 50 percent before Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Android operating system were introduced about six years ago. Nokia has lost more than 80 percent of its market value since then and no longer ranks among the top-five smartphone makers.

“Nokia is the most successful Finnish company of all time, which in its heyday brought Finland enormous amounts of wellbeing and international prestige, raising Finland’s self- esteem,” Economy Minister Jan Vapaavuori said in a statement Tuesday. “The biggest impact is on an emotional level. It’s the end of an era in Finland’s economic history.”

Nokia became an icon after pioneering the mobile phone in the 1980s, a product that later helped pull its home nation out of a three-year recession induced by a banking crisis and the loss of its main export market as the Soviet Union collapsed. After contracting about 6 percent in 1991, the economy grew 4.5 percent on average in 1994 through 2000.

Stephen Elop, who stepped down as chief executive officer today, told reporters Finns are “rightfully proud” of what Nokia has stood for over the past almost 150 years as a “source of inspiration and strength.”

Yet the company’s failure to maintain its market dominance means “Finns have been distancing themselves emotionally from Nokia for some years,” said Jyrki Alkio, editor in chief of the Tekniikka &Talous magazine, who has watched Nokia’s ascent and decline over his 23-year career as a journalist. “If this had happened three years ago, it would have been a shock. We have finally grown to accept that we are not Nokia and it doesn’t define our identity.”

Still, for decades Finland’s national pride was rooted in Nokia’s phones as much as it was in sports heroes like Formula 1 champions Mika Hakkinen and Kimi Raikkonen.

“Finns used to be known for Raikkonen and Nokia,” said Sirje Liemola, 56, who works as a saleswoman at a Helsinki department store. “I heard what Elop said, that Finns should be proud. I think we were proud, and we would have been more so if Nokia had remained Finnish.”

Nokia’s 94 percent share-price plunge from its 2000 peak left thousands of engineers looking for work after the company curtailed local development and moved production to Asia. Nokia’s Finnish employment fell 40 percent in six years through 2012, according to the Economy Ministry. Finland’s economy is suffering its second recession in four years as weak export demand is exacerbated by an ailing forest industry and the decline of Nokia.

Finland shouldn’t throw in the towel just yet, said Alexander Stubb, minister for trade and European affairs.

“Never underestimate the implications of the Finnish sisu, in other words Finnish perseverance and courage,” he said by phone today. “There is huge potential in Finnish engineering and you will see that blossoming within the next few years.”

Finland is trying to attract data centers to old paper mills, touting an electricity grid that suffered downtime only once in 30 years. Microsoft said today it will invest about 250 million euros in a new data center in Finland. The government negotiated with Microsoft “for a long time” to get the investment, Economy Minister Vapaavuori said. It’s following in the footsteps of Google, IBM Corp. and Russia’s Yandex, which have opened data centers in the country. Intel Corp. opened a research facility near Helsinki last year.

“We should look at the silver lining,” Stubb said. “From now on we will have two huge information technology giants in Finland.”

The shake-up will be good for the country, according to Ilkka Paananen, CEO of Supercell Oy, the maker of tablet games including “Clash of Clans” and “Hay Day.”

“Finland needed this,” he said in a posting on Twitter Tuesday. “Now let’s all wake up and get to work. New opportunities are everywhere!”

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