The café area in Nokia’s slick, airy headquarters in Espoo, hard by the Baltic Sea just beyond Helsinki, houses a display that traces the evolution of Nokia’s mobile phones. One of the first, from 1985, is portable in the same way a cement block is portable. With a power source the size of a car battery, it weighed 15 kilos and cost in the neighbourhood of $10,000.
Shortly thereafter, the Nokia revolution started. The phones got ever smaller, affordable and innovative. By 2003, Nokia was rolling out (primitive) Internet tablets with touch screens and durable little handhelds with dirt-proof keypads and 30-day standby time.
By the middle part of the last decade Nokia was the undisputed global leader in mobility and Scandinavia’s proudest corporate son. The tech giant, once better known as a maker of tires, rubber boots and cables, was responsible for 4 per cent of Finnish gross domestic product, 25 per cent of its exports, 35 per cent of its R&D and fully one-third of the value of the Finnish stock market.
The party ended in mid-2007, when Apple’s iPhone landed with the force of a nuclear bomb. After a period of denial inspired by arrogance, Nokia went into crisis mode and a global search was launched to find the ultimate Mr. Fix-It. He came in the unlikely form of Stephen Elop, a tech geek bred in little Ancaster, Ont., now part of Hamilton. To say that few CEOs face a greater turnaround challenge is like saying Greece has a little debt problem in need of a cure.
Mr. Elop bounds into Salutorget, an elegant but buzzy Scandinavian bistro on historic Helsinki’s harbour with all the high-voltage charm of a bowling ball salesman trying to nail his sales target. The smile is big, the handshake firm, the voice strong and confident.
It’s Saturday, and there is no need for a tie. Nokia’s first non-Finnish boss wears jeans, a crumpled blue shirt and travelling blazer (after lunch, he’s off to London). The endless airplane and hotel meals seem to have caught up with him since the last time we met, in London 13 months ago, when he tied Nokia’s future to Microsoft, his previous employer. His belly is more pronounced – though, at 48, still looks like he could thump a man half his age.
For someone who is ultra-organized and efficient, Mr. Elop is surprisingly flustered at times. He has a terrible memory for dates and keeps asking his PR staffer for help in figuring out where he worked when. At one point, he has trouble remembering his age and it takes him a while to figure out the year of his marriage. He tells me he recently left his iPad on an airplane and never got it back. I wonder whether his next tablet will be a Nokia. The rumours say the company has one in development with Microsoft.
Mr. Elop avoids the reindeer and other traditional Finnish sub-arctic fare and opts for scallops to start, then filet of beef served with horseradish and hot mustard. Having eaten reindeer the night before, and craving something Italian after a week on the road (I live in Rome), I go for the risotto, though in deference to my latitude, I start with the blintz, served with roe, red onions and a heavy cream (delicious!). Mr. Elop opts for sparkling water, no wine.
His grandfather was a wireless operator in the Second World War and his father a Westinghouse engineer who designed electrical transformers for power plants, so he comes by his love for electronics and gadgetry honestly. “My younger brother will remember that he received a transistor radio for Christmas,” he says. “I took it apart and it never worked again.”
Mr. Elop is the middle of three boys. His mother was a chemist (his parents still live in Ancaster). He seems to have had a normal, suburban Ontario upbringing, but his desire to toil in the tech world was never in doubt. At McMaster University, in Hamilton, he did a five-year combined degree in engineering and management. After his first year, he wrote the user operating manual, called the Orange Book, for the campus’s new computer system.