Stephen Elop: listening will be task number one at Nokia

Microsoft's former president of business software talks of candy and culture as he prepares to take the top job at Nokia

Stephen Elop

Stephen Elop

Stephen Elop sees a lot to like about the Finnish culture that pervades his future employer, Nokia -- but the country's famous black candy, salmiakki? Not so much.

"I tried it. I've moved on," Elop said.

Elop -- until Thursday president of Microsoft's business software group -- will take over the top role at Nokia on 21 September.

The technology industry is at one of those critical moments when fundamental change takes place, such as happened following the invention of the graphical user interface, the mobile phone, and the worldwide web, Elop said during a webcast news conference on Friday.

"Today, we are going through a similar fundamental change," this time triggered by the rise of the cloud, of social media, and of ubiquitous handheld computing and communications, he said.

"For Nokia, this represents a huge opportunity," he said. "Connecting people will continue to be a key element of our strategy, even as people change the way they want to connect."

"My role will be to lead the organization through this period of change."

That won't -- initially, at least -- mean making any sweeping changes himself. His first task will be to listen, to learn about the company and adjust to its culture.

"I will be doing a great deal of listening and adjusting," he said.

The challenges Nokia faces are well understood within the company, he said: what's needed is to put into practice the measures needed to deal with them. "It's way too early to make comments about specific changes," he said, adding that any changes he does make will be "optimized for long-term growth."

One area where Nokia has room to grow is North America. "It's a critically important market," for mobile phone manufacturers, Elop said. "There was a time when Europe and Asia led North America. That's changing."

Elop, a Canadian citizen with a long career in the U.S. tech industry, will be well-placed to exploit that change. "It will be an opportunity for me working with various people I know in North America," he said.

Nokia uses a number of different software platforms in its phones -- but has not yet used one from Microsoft. Elop avoided the issue of whether that would change, but said each platform had its place.

"There's a range of experiences we have delivered, from the simplest phones to smartphones, with a range of platforms. It will be important for me to understand how to emphasize each platform," he said.

It's not just about the device, it's about the entire platform, software and services. A key focus going forward will be delivering that end-to-end experience," he said, a nod to the success of companies such as Apple, and to a lesser extent Google, in integrating an online app marketplace with a phone operating system, or Research In Motion, which links its phones tightly with its own e-mail service.

Elop's move to Nokia has been several months in the making. Nokia's board began its search for a new CEO in May, interviewing internal and external candidates, and Elop quickly emerged as the board's favorite, said Nokia Chairman Jorma Ollila.

As Nokia sought to woo Elop, he made a number of visits to Finland, often travelling with Ollila.

Elop said he enjoyed a recent weekend they spent watching the crowds together in downtown Helsinki, and plans to establish a residence in Finland very quickly.

Ollila, having initially told the board that he wanted to quit this year, said he has agreed to stay on for a while longer -- at least until Elop has settled in to his new role. "I have agreed to help Stephen with the transition, but no time is set," Ollila said.

Throughout the recruitment process, outgoing CEO Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo handled things very professionally -- gallantly, even, said Ollila. "There was no slamming of doors."

What about Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, alleged to have once thrown a chair on hearing that an employee was moving to a competitor?

"His response was a combination of disappointment, for sure, combined with respect for Nokia. It was a remarkably difficult yet professional moment," Elop said.

Peter Sayer covers open source software, European intellectual property legislation and general technology breaking news for IDG News Service. Send comments and news tips to Peter at peter_sayer@idg.com.

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