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Tuomo Rönkkö has a box at home that his wife has labeled "The Life of Tuomo". The box contains photographs, trophies and awards that Rönkkö has received from a number of instances such as the President of the Republic of Finland, LUT University, and A. Ahlström Ltd.
Recently a long era in Rönkkö's life came to an end. Rönkkö was a member of the LUT University board for 12 years, and he passed the baton to the next chair at the end of 2021. New memorabilia will start finding their way into the box called "The Life of Tuomo".
Having made a long career in the business world, Rönkkö has had a hand in many projects and has a great deal to say about the future of the university he holds so dear.
Rönkkö is happy that LUT has risen to the world's top 300 in the distinguished THE university ranking.
"LUT's problem is its location, but once you get a student here, the problem no longer exists. The sense of community in Lappeenranta is strong, and the Lahti campus is an excellent addition to the mix."
Rönkkö feels the LUT School of Business and Management conducts strong research – its placement in the top 175 of the THE business school ranking is ample proof of it.
"We members of the Society for Viipuri School of Economics (VITAKO) are extremely pleased. VITAKO supports both business and industrial engineering and management at LUT, and both fields of study equip students well for the world of work. Industry currently values both business and industrial engineering and management graduates from LUT," says Rönkkö, VITAKO's chair.
Rönkkö envisions that future business specialists will differ from present-day graduates in the field. He highlights the importance of intellectual cross-pollination, in which a university that combines technology and social sciences would specialize.
"Nevertheless, in this highly competitive climate, a university cannot respond to the challenge alone. Industries are complaining about a workforce shortage, but what are they doing about it? We need more specialists from abroad – year-round and not only as summer interns. We need to be able to retain international experts in Finland."
Attracting foreign students is a matter where Rönkkö considers he has failed during his decade on the LUT board. Rönkkö says that he has not been able to further this agenda sufficiently even though LUT has invested in the Chinese market and is the most international university in Finland.
"Finland is a wonderful country. We offer safety, equality and democracy. We need to make others see how great we are."
Another matter that bothers Rönkkö is the absence of an HR development director at LUT. He feels that such a position would be crucial to the development of LUT's professional community.
"Every large establishment requires someone who convinces and inspires the troops to develop professionally."
LUT needs a battle budget for the rector
The LUT School of Business and Management celebrated its 30th anniversary in August 2021. The Society for Viipuri School of Economics, VITAKO, played an essential role in establishing a business school in Lappeenranta, and the society is still one of the school's most important donors.
Every other year, the society awards the Viipuri Prize to an internationally recognized top researcher whose work has made a significant impact on research and education at the LUT School of Business and Management. Last time (2019), the prize went to Erik Brynjolfsson, a researcher of artificial intelligence (AI) and employment. LUT conducted AI research inspired by him with funding from VITAKO.
"Lappeenranta and Lahti are closer to the heritage of the old city of Viipuri – or Vyborg, as they say in English – than other places in Finland. Even though Finland ceded Vyborg to Russia in the Second World War, the city's influence is still present in Finland through the corporate world. Large companies such as Kemppi and Koiviston Auto originate from Vyborg," Rönkkö analyzes.
VITAKO was founded by local merchants in 1919. Their first order of business was fund-raising. LUT University has received several significant donations from various quarters, but Rönkkö still needs a further kick on the field.
"Where are all the modern-day VITAKOs? Investing in education means investing in the future. If there were more foundations that understood this idea, universities beyond the Helsinki area would have a better chance at surviving the competition," Rönkkö emphasizes.
"We need a task force and a battle budget for the rector to enable LUT to develop also in difficult times."
In Rönkkö's opinion, an important leap forward was LUT's decision to apply for education responsibilities in social sciences from the Ministry of Education and Culture. Mission succeeded; LUT University will start degree programmes in social and behavioural sciences and communication and information sciences in autumn 2023.
The future belongs to deep generalists, as says Aytekin Tank, CEO of the US company JotForm.
"The future belongs to those with a deep understanding of vast knowledge flows that they apply to solving the world's wicked problems," Rönkkö expands.
Not much of a tool man
Standing out from the crowd can open up new possibilities.
From 1977 to 1998, LUT University's rector was Professor JuhaniJaakkola, and the young industrial engineering and management student Tuomo Rönkkö caught his attention.
"I was an annoying brat back then. I was a know-it-all and asked too many questions. However, I got along with Jaakkola and ended up on the national higher education council as the only representative from Lappeenranta even though I was just a student," Rönkkö reminisces.
The higher education council was an authority operating under the Ministry of Education from 1966 to 1995. It dealt with the development and budgets of Finnish universities and higher education institutions and gave statements to the Ministry. Subsequently, the Finnish Higher Education Evaluation Council was established, and in 2014, the Finnish Education Evaluation Centre (FINEEC). FINEEC's field of operation covers the entire Finnish education system from early childhood education and care to higher education.
Through his active engagement in the higher education council and the university community, Rönkkö made an impression on Rector Jaakkola. Jaakkola was the long-standing chair of VITAKO and asked Rönkkö first to join the society and later to be on its board.
"I've never been handy with tools. Whenever I made something in shop class at school, my father said he could not figure out what the outcome was supposed to be. I was never one to work on a motor bike in the garage or show off my woodworking skills, which is why I got interested in societal issues. I followed world events, read a great deal and got involved in different organizations," Rönkkö says.
"My wife claims that I'm not all thumbs – she says I have no thumbs at all!"
Rönkkö says he has always had it easy because he has never been wrong. "In my opinion, that is," he jests.
The thrill of victory
Rönkkö is good at giving compliments to whoever he is talking with. He can easily make people laugh but is not afraid to voice criticism, either – to himself included. Rönkkö casually drops names, countries and projects during conversations, but is also able to stay grounded and in the moment.
Rönkkö acknowledges how lucky he is for having had good parents and friends as a child.
"We grew up in a climate of trust. We used to run around barefoot in the Parikkala village. Sometimes we would get into a fist-fight, but the next minute we would make up and move on."
Rönkkö remembers how he participated in a cross-country skiing competition in the second grade and decided: "I'm sure not going to lose to that girl in front of me".
"The thrill of victory may be the thing that has pushed me forward in life."
Rönkkö lost his heart to ice hockey at a young age and was soon chosen captain of his team. He says the experience was the best possible leadership training he could get.
As a university student, Rönkkö was extremely frugal and kept daily records of his expenses. "Beer, 1.5 Finnish marks," we would write down in his notepad as evening came. Rönkkö meticulously saved all of his summer job earnings, and after his first academic year, he was able to buy his first apartment.
"I can now live a financially independent life, and my wife has been good at teaching me how to spend money!"
Rönkkö's numerous trophies and recognitions do not secure him command over his household. Rönkkö jokes that gender equality is a dead letter in their home.
"The missus is big on crafts, and her projects and balls of yarn keep popping up around the house. She has taken over, but I still have my box labeled "The Life of Tuomo". My wife even decides which chores around the house are men's. I wash the windows, heat the sauna, pick the mushrooms and smoke the fish. I wonder what my wife does," Rönkkö lists and belts out a hearty laugh.
"We never get bored with each other."
One thing less to worry about
Rönkkö is frustrated by how some evil tongues have declared that his desire to promote reform is actually hunger for money or power.
Rönkkö says that instead of money and power, he is motivated by the sincere desire to help the region of South Karelia thrive. He says he loses his temper every time LUT University's motives for development are written off as a power play.
"We could have set up a second campus anywhere, but only Lahti had the guts to get in the game."
Truth be told, Rönkkö is a wealthy man. Wealthy enough not to need any more money.
"Wealth means you have one less thing to worry about. However, money alone does not give your life meaning and purpose. Money is a tool that enables things. For instance, you do not have to think about how much your groceries cost when you go to the store. Or you can donate to a university if you want!"
Rönkkö says he primarily contributes his expertise and extensive networks to his projects. He has had the opportunity to see the world and experience a great deal. Money is a by-product of it all.
"I feel obligated to give back to the community."
Rönkkö points out that the new generation wants to use its money for the good of the environment and the world. Investors are looking for ways to support sustainable development.
"Sustainable finance is a point of view, not just a new angle to money-making."
Five pairs of shoes worth 60 000 euros
Rönkkö has always been passionate about growth companies and influencing. He has been involved in the establishment of Service Sector Employers PALTA, LUT's start-up accelerator Green Campus Innovations, the cleantech company Endev and his family business Tejusa.
When Rönkkö was heading the fiber material manufacturer Ahlstrom (A. Ahlström until 2001), he founded a new factory in Mänttä, Finland, in 1986. Meanwhile, the company developed a new series of AHLSTAR pumps, which were a huge success on the market.
Rönkkö is currently excited about a construction startup with which he has become involved. Its idea is to promote a new type of industrially prefabricated building module, but Rönkkö is not at liberty to disclose anything else about the project. Its patent is still pending.
Rönkkö has invested his own money in countless projects, and not all of them have been success stories. For instance, Rönkkö was involved in The Left Shoe Company, founded in 1998, which made customized high-end shoes for men. The company declared bankruptcy in 2016.
"I guess I'm one of the few men who has five pairs of 60 000 euro shoes," Rönkkö jokes.
Another risk Rönkkö took was Endev. The company's innovation helps to remove phosphorus, pharmaceutical residues and microplastics from municipal sewage. As Endev prevents hazardous substances from ending up in bodies of water, it simultaneously produces energy from the treated sludge for the district heating network. The phosphorus is recovered for fertilizers.
Endev's technology has been tested for years in a pilot plant in Kotka, Finland. The company's current, modernized pilot plant is located in Pyhtää, and the very first pilot plant was built up north in Rovaniemi.
"We get frequent inquiries from around the world about our innovation, but unfortunately, the process is not quite ready for use. It works, but not reliably enough. Endev is now on its second financing round. Let's see where it takes us."
Rönkkö says that on the path he has chosen, he needs to be able to face a certain amount of opposition. Change requires leadership and always has its critics.
"But if no one gets angry, nothing will change."
- Born in Parikkala, South Karelia; lives in Espoo.
- Investor, businessman, innovation influencer, professional board member.
- Education: Master of Science in Technology (LUT, industrial engineering and management, 1979).
- Career: international management positions in the engineering and service industries (Ahlström, Eltel Networks, Maintpartner).
- Positions of trust: Chair of the LUT University Advisory Board, position of trust in the Delegation for Entrepreneurs of the Confederation of Finnish Industries, chair of the board of the Society for Viipuri School of Economics VITAKO, chair of the board of cleantech company Endev.
- Family: wife, daughter and two adult children from a previous marriage.
- Interests: spending time in his holiday homes in Tammela and Vierumäki.
The LUT School of Business and Management turned 30 in 2021. To mark the occasion, we published interviews with the school's former and current employees and influencers with alumni. Rönkkö's interview was done in September 2021.