He won a scholarship at the age of 17 to Atlantic College in Wales which was set up by Outward Bound founder Kurt Hahn to bring together future world leaders from around the globe.
“My Atlantic College experience gave me a totally different perspective on world affairs,” said Ollila, “in practical terms I learnt to be comfortable with foreign cultures, travelling and facing tough challenges. It also directed me towards a career with an international perspective right from the early days of my professional life.
Two years later, he was on the board of management of Citibank Helsinki. From there, in 1985, he joined Nokia, and soon became vice-president of finance.
Why did he make the switch from banking to industry?
“Well at that time there were tremendous strengths already at Nokia,” said Ollila, “there was the strength of the culture. We did not have a bureaucratic culture. Also, people wanted to work for Nokia – there was an environment at Nokia that allows people to get things done. And by operating in a decentralized way, we actually had many ‘pockets’ of very good culture throughout the organization. I felt that there was a determination at Nokia to do well.”
It was in 1990 that the big test of his career came – he was made president of the mobile phone division a loss-making, poorly regarded, unit of the sprawling Nokia empire.
Then came Ollila’s big bet. His bet on GSM was by no means an obvious one. However, having reported to the board that the mobile phone business was worth keeping – and managing to persuade them of the case for increasing investment in it – Ollila then had to deliver GSM products.
It was a major achievement by Nokia’s engineers to get working products into the market in 1991.
Ollila was driven by his perception of the exceptional opportunity.
“From the outset we believed we were involved in something big,” he said, “we were always very ambitious, setting extremely high targets for ourselves, and these targets were considered wildly aggressive by industry analysts, even laughable in their magnitude. Ironically, in the end, even we underestimated the size of the market. I think the scope in which mobility has touched and will touch all our lives is bigger than anyone could ever have imagined.”
In 1992, he became CEO of the whole of Nokia and in 1994 launched it on the NYSE. “The telecommunication equipment market is global, its products are global, our competitors are global, so we need global access to capital,” said Ollila, “Nokia is a place where we encourage entrepreneurs and risk-takers, a place where you are allowed to make mistakes. Furthermore, if mistakes are made early enough we can learn from them, and even turn them around to our advantage.”
“Personally I have found that what young people really want is freedom, freedom to make their own decisions and plan their own projects,” said Ollila, “but at the same time what they also want is to be part of a team, part of a successful team. At Nokia we try to create an environment where this dichotomy is made possible.”
“The customer does not care about the technologies. It’s all about giving users interesting and easy-to-use new opportunities,” he said.
His advice to government was simple: “There are three things that will decide how any society can best work for the common good – Education, Education and Education. And this applies to both developed and developing countries.”
“We felt like we are changing the world,” said Ollila, “in the future, people will probably look back and say this was the time the Mobile Information Age was born”.