Grandfather of steel believes in happy employees

Grandfather of steel believes in happy employees

“I had always dreamed of being an entrepreneur. I was one of 11 children in a family living in the countryside and the thought of being rich was very appealing to me,” recalls Reino Rajamäki.

“But I never imagined that the company I founded would one day grow to the size it is today – never,” he says.

The father of this company, which today has a turnover of EUR 100 million and 130 employees in four countries, is an electrical engineer who holds the Finnish honorary title of Industrial Counsellor as well as an honorary doctorate. A man who people address by his first name in the plant’s coffee-break room. A man who would rather introduce himself as the son of a poor miner than as the founder of a large company. Well, actually, Reino likes to point out that he is both of those things.

“There is no doubt that my strong desire to become an entrepreneur and succeed is rooted in the impoverished home circumstances of my childhood. Without that history, I would not be where I am today,” he admits.

A burning desire, passion, hunger is how Reino describes the need he had to create a successful company of his own. That hunger had only grown during his 15 years of service for another company, and when, out of the blue, he was fired from that job in 1972, Reino knew it was time to take action. He decided to buy a company.

The best offer he received on his purchase announcement came from his former place of employment. Its steel sink manufacturing operation had been unprofitable for a long time, and the owners were looking to sell. Almost as soon as Reino closed the deal, it began to bear fruit.

The recipe for success was clear: The company had to manufacture high-quality products as efficiently as possible. Reino had always been good at maths, so the equation was simple.

“The company had two options: succeed or go bankrupt,” he recounts. “I wanted to succeed, and I knew that when employees enjoy what they do, they work more efficiently.”

 

For that reason Reino decided that the company would not be run bureaucratically from the top down, but instead it would embrace a policy of respecting and listening to the employees: they would be on a first-name basis; ensure more effective, mutual communication; highlight each employee’s responsibilities and competence; provide encouragement and, of course, hold a lot of celebrations that included everyone. This philosophy was later given a name: “crowd leadership”. In the course of his career, Reino has spoken on the topic on hundreds of occasions, as crowd leadership was a revolutionary concept back in the 1970s corporate culture. For Reino, however, it was an obvious equation.

Sitting in his armchair in his home office, sipping cognac and apologising for his tired state, the result of his 80th birthday celebration the day before at the plant with the entire staff, Reino wonders about one thing. Forty years have passed since he founded his company and announced his philosophy, and yet still today, an employee-centred approach is not embraced by the business world. Reino is at a loss to explain why. The Stala success story, however, proves that it is precisely that kind of approach that brings the greatest rewards.

“But I don’t understand this world we live in anymore anyways,” he says with a laugh.

There’s a sense of longing in his voice. Even though his life’s work is in good hands – those of his daughter and son-in-law – it hasn’t been easy sitting on the sidelines.

“Jukka [Nummi] calls me sometimes and asks what would be a good investment. My daughter [Tuija Rajamäki] doesn’t call – she just invests,” Reino says with a smirk, but then breaks into a grin. “It seems they’re doing quite alright,” he adds.

High-quality products, producing results, and a focus on the employees have been Stala’s cornerstones since day one. Forty years later, they haven’t changed a bit. This pleases Reino. Even though switching from the driver’s seat to the rocking chair has taken some getting used to, Reino can only be grateful to see what he has created. The company is still the same as the one he envisaged – a bold and innovative family business.

But what about the next 40 years? Reino won’t be around for Stala’s 80th jubilee, but there’s no doubt that it will happen.

“The owners may change, but as long as there is chrome, nickel and iron in Finland that someone rolls into steel, Stala is here to stay,” he states assertively. It is stainless steel, after all, and that lasts forever.