Roger Talermo has always enjoyed challenges ranging from downhill skiing to sailing, starting up new companies and turning around old ones. That’s why Talermo and Amer were a perfect fit almost ten years ago when he became the CEO. Amer was definitely a challenge.
There are people who look for the easy way out, and there are people who thrive on challenges. The bigger, the better. It’s a character trait and it can’t be taught. You can learn to deal with challenges, but to get energy and thrive on them? It must be in the genes.
When Roger Talermo was just a kid, living in Helsinki, Finland, he loved to ski. And the highlight of his skiing trips was the Taivaskallio hill – in the fairly flat Helsinki, even a plain old hill can be called “Sky Rock” – that he just had to ski down as fast as possible.
“Downhill skiing was my passion from an early age,” Roger Talermo says. “I just had to get to that hill. And then, when I was ten, I got to buy a used pair of alpine ski boots”.
A couple of years later Roger was elected chairman of the sports team of his school. Or, elected may be a wrong word.
”I was very active and participated and represented my school in many competitions so one day my gym teacher just told me that I would be the chairman of our club. It was fine with me,” he says.
And that was the start of two great careers. One of a top athlete – besides being a skier and an elite sailor, Talermo is credited for bringing freestyle alpine skiing into Finland – and another one of a leader and a businessman.
“I took the skiing instructor’s exam quite early in my career and founded several schools in Finland. So, for years, I was a professional skier, and did that at its best 11 months a year,” he says.
But when Profile meets Roger Talermo, the interview takes place at a corner office in Helsinki, instead of a Swiss cottage in the Alps, so something else must have happened.
“In 1978, Salomon asked me if I wanted to import their products into Finland. It was a great company, but in a small niche. I hadn’t even graduated from the business school even though I had enrolled the school a few years earlier, 1974,” Talermo says. “I got married in 1979, decided that my ski career was over and took on Salomon’s offer.”
Now Talermo had two challenges all of a sudden. First, he had to manage a company and help it grow, and secondly, he wanted to get the degree from the business school. In 1981, he had the diploma and was ready to take on a bigger role in the Salomon group as he became a commercial director, based in France.
For a man who was used to high speed and free style, working abroad provided him with endless possibilities to learn and to mature.
“After a few years in France, I definitely wanted to live in an Anglosaxon country, so I didn’t hesitate to head TaylorMade in California in 1990,” he says.
All this while, Talermo had also been studying on the side. Originally he started to read a lot of business books to learn more because he “didn’t have any peer groups”, as he was a lone Finn in the organization. The books were his sparring partners. When he enquired about the possibility to study further at the Helsinki Swedish Business School, he realized that he needed to take his Master’s degree. By that time, he was already busy turning TaylorMade around so he had to be creative.
”I always tried to combine business trips with my trips to the exams,” he says, and laughs.
Reading and studying became a hobby for him, so once Talermo graduated in the mid-1990s, he had several majors. “I was truly seeking knowledge,” he says.
By 1996 Roger Talermo had lived in France, the US, Sweden and Austria. He had been an executive in small companies gone big, big companies on their way becoming small and everything in between. His entire career was outside Finland.
And then Amer headquarters called.
Amer was founded in 1950 as a tobacco company. By 1996 it had been in fashion business – it only Marimekko for a while – shipping, automobile wholesale, plastics wholesale, printing and publishing, and sporting goods, to name a few. Like Talermo says jokingly, the only businesses Amer hasn’t been active in are mining or oil.
It had been leaning towards sporting goods since late 1980s when it acquired Wilson. With the addition of Atomic in 1994, and then the appointment of Talermo in 1996, the course was there to be plotted.
“Amer was losing money at the time, and I think that the people who hired me wanted us to go for the sports sector. They wouldn’t have hired me otherwise, my background was so heavily in sports,” Talermo says.
Today, less than ten years later, Amer Sports is much closer to the goal Talermo set for the company: to be the No. 1 sports equipment company in the world.
”Our first goal was to make Amer a profitable company for its 50th anniversary in 2000. Since we succeeded in that two years ahead of schedule, we set a new, bold, goal that still stands. When the analysts asked us for our goal for the next two quarters, I told them we want to be number one by 2005, and that they can do the math,” he says, laughing. “It was only partly a joke.”
In Amer’s corporate values, you can find the following sentence: “Success in competition requires determination to win, team spirit and teamwork.” Sounds like something a coach would say to his team before a big game.
It is easy to draw parallels between a sporting goods company and sports – especially when the CEO is a former athlete. Athletes, especially those not in team sports, learn to rely on their instincts and their training, trusting that if they just keep on training like they planned, they will be in good enough shape to win the race.
Like long distance runners. The marathon is usually won by the runner that doesn’t panic when competition attacks, but instead runs his race according to his own plan, knowing that if he can hit his own goal, he will get the prize.
Business is not sports, of course, but Talermo doesn’t deny the parallels.
“Just like an athlete, a company may not always see its own development, and notice how good it’s got,” he says.
Or a CEO.
“I have never worked anywhere just to build a career. I do understand that if you do a good job, good things will happen to you, careerwise, but I will not start to think about tomorrow today. It is now I need to do a good job,” he says. “More good things come from a job well done than a job badly done. There are no shortcuts.
“In the beginning of my career, I was starting up small companies, like ski schools and Salomon in Finland,” he says. “Then I was in the turn-around business for ten years, going from one challenge to another, from one country to another. It was tough, even though the same logic applies to many different situations.”
Like many successful executives, especially in Finland, it’s difficult to make Talermo go overboard with self-praise. When asked to name three things he is proud of in his career, he answers in a humble way.
“Well, the first one would be leaving Finland. I would not be me if I hadn’t done that, it has been crucial for my development. That leads me to the second thing I am proud of and that is the fact that even though I have spent 17 years abroad, I have never absorbed any country too much, and have instead always been myself. Thirdly, I am proud that I have had the courage to take my own path,” he says.
See, Roger Talermo wouldn’t list career accomplishments on that list. He says that the biggest thank you he has got out of the turnaround projects he has headed has been just that – the thank you that comes from his partners and employees whose jobs he has saved.
“One of the toughest ones was TaylorMade that already had tried to turn it around twice and failed twice. There is nothing more rewarding than to hear the thanks from a person who a few months earlier had cried when we sat on the sidewalk of the company’s parking lot talking about the situation,” Talermo says.
“I have been lucky since I have had quite a few such experiences. TaylorMade was the biggest enjoyment, but Atomic had also gone bankrupt when I started there and we turned it into the most profitable sports company in the world.”
And that’s when he pops the champagne and calls for a press conference to tell the world? Well, not quite.
“And once I feel my job is done, I like to almost just disappear and let the others celebrate. It’s almost like a team coach leaving the stage for the players who have done all the work,” he says.
“I get my satisfaction from the work itself and job well done is the best reward. That is the reason we have worked so hard, right? Not to be able to drink champagne. I haven’t ever really celebrated anything, and the only person who knows that is my wife who has always been there to see it. I am ambitious, yes, but I haven’t been career-conscious.”
How does he do it, though? What is his management secret?
“There is no secret. I don’t believe that being a manager is only about having a certain set of skills. I think it is 50 percent skills and 50 percent of what I call “art.” A good manager needs good intuition, he has to be creative. Without creativity and that “speed of thought”, you just can’t operate,” he says.
“Intuition is important because most situations are new, and if they’re not, the management has been playing it safe and the company has lived in a “me-too” world,” he says.
It’s not all fuzzy logic and fuzzy feelings, though. Business is business, after all.
”Emotions can’t be over 50 percent of the equation, either. Of course, managerial decisions have to fulfil certain criteria first. For example, if we were to acquire another company, naturally we would consider profitability and long-term earnings. Then we would make sure it fits our values, and last the emotions, gut feeling, plays a part. It comes last, but it can decide the whole thing,” he says.
A CEO is also the number one spokesperson for his company. Talermo sports a nice Suunto watch and he shows enthusiastically all the functions on the watch. “Here’s my pulse during my morning run – average 130, low 68, and high 178, although I find that hard to believe,” he says, clicking through graphs and figures on his watch. There are several golf bags in Talermo’s office and he says he still tests all their skiing equipment.
In one afternoon. After all, the man travels 150 days a year.
“I like to be involved, I like to understand what people in the organization do, so that it is then possible for me to initiate right solutions. I find it strange to think that management manages and the others do the work,” he says.
When Talermo returned to Finland ten years ago, he was an outsider in many ways. He had created his personal self abroad, he wasn’t a part of the old boys’ network and he hadn’t learned the old-school of management, either. The management by perkele.
“It doesn’t work anymore. I don’t believe in authoritarian management at all, a manager becomes authority in other ways these days. We hire smart, young people because they’re experts in what they do. They do respect the management but in a different way. Today, it comes down to expertise and creating a good atmosphere in the company,” he says.
Published in Profile in September 2004.