Leading with values: Consistent ideals breed international success
By Eileen Persike, Editor
Einari Vidgrén was 14 years old when he began working as a logger in his native Finland. In 1960, still in his teens, Vidgrén started as a forest contractor, using a farm tractor and trailer; by the end of the year he was one of Finland’s biggest contractors. One frustration for the budding entrepreneur, however, was working with forest machines that were broken all the time.
“Then he decided,” said his son, Juha. “Let’s build one machine which lasts two weeks without service. That was the beginning of Ponsse in 1970.”
Einari began his business close to home, in fact developing and building the first load-carrying forest tractor in a local shop made from recycled parts. According to the company website, the machine was named after a mixed-breed dog that roamed the village. “Ponsse’s fur was a mottled grey, and it sure was an ugly dog. However, it was a persistent hunter, and you never had to return empty-handed from a hunting trip with Ponsse,” the story is told.
Nearly 50 years later much has changed in forestry equipment manufacturing; Ponsse is a global company, the North American headquarters is located in Rhinelander; and Einari’s son Juha Vidgrén was named chairman of the board following the founder’s passing in 2010, to name just a few.
What hasn’t changed is the company culture based on values and principles Einari created back all those years ago.
“Ponsse is a value-led company,” Juha explained. “Every decision we make daily is based on our values of honesty, innovation and Ponsse spirit, [which is] equality, good humor, respect to everybody and customership.”
It was important to Einari to bring together the employees who manufactured and serviced the machines and the customers who purchased them. Even back in the early days, he held annual gatherings at his summer house on the shore of Lake Marttisenjärvi for workers and customers to “enjoy the common spirit and leisure-time activities,” such as sauna, swimming and games.
Employing Einari’s values throughout the world has been successful not only for employees and customers, but also for the company, which has received numerous accolades in Finland, including a National Inventor prize awarded by the Ministry of Trade and Industry and an award for Ponsse’s achievements in international business operations from the President of Finland. In 2018 Ponsse was named Finland’s “Most Reputable” company by Prime Minister Juha Sipilä.
“It’s a great reward for the work we do every day,” said Juha Vidgrén. “It’s also great to win this award as a forestry business company.”
Five decades of values that were “Set in stone when the company was created in 1970,” according to marketing coordinator Diana Olkowski, remain intact through growth that now includes 1,700 employees working in 40 countries including Russia, France, Brazil and China.
“I think maybe that’s carried through or why it’s so solid for us is because when the [North American] subsidiary was started, they sent people over from Finland who had worked for Ponsse in Finland,” said Angie Dreifuerst, human resources benefits administrator. “They understood the values, they understood the culture. They came over an instilled those values and culture.”
Having a conversation with a potential business partner who lives halfway around the world and speaks another language can be challenging, to be sure. Building a relationship under those circumstances could be another level of difficult, but Juha said he keeps it local and employs the same humble tactics his father did back in the company’s beginnings.
“We live in the countryside where our factory is, too,” he said. “When customers visit Finland, we go to the factory, a logging site, and spend time together at our Ponsse Club. That is how we get to know each other better and create a trust – just like in everyday work.”
It may be “everyday work” for the Vidgrén family, but being part of a company with a flat organizational structure and unique work culture was an adjustment for Dreifuerst, who has been with Ponsse for three years. An adjustment in a good way.
“There’s just a culture that’s really hard to describe to someone outside the company until you’ve experienced it,” she said. “A lot of American companies would say, ‘our employees are our most important asset.’ They don’t need to say it at Ponsse because they just are, in terms of benefits, how they treat one another.”
As it prepares to celebrate 50 years of existence, and 25 years in North America, Ponsse is not slowing down or relaxing.
“We need to keep customer’s machines running every day, we need to improve every day,” Juha said.
More immediate planning is underway for the U.S. launch of the Ponsse Cobra Harvester takes place June 14 at the Crandon International Raceway.