June 20, 2019

145 years ago, Rudolf Kolster founded a company that has remained in the family for five generations. The man also left a mark on engineering student culture: the mythical figure of the "Grim Bearded Engineer" distributing campaign orders is believed to represent Rudolf Kolster.

Sometimes big stories ride on small details. The history of Finnish industrial property rights would have a large gap the size of Kolster if engineering student Rudolf Kolster would not have had a few Finns as classmates in Hanover. And if one evening spent in cheerful company in 1860 would not have happened. However, all of this did happen.

The talented German engineer Rudolf Kolster, who was lured to Finland on a quick schedule, left the Kingdom of Hanover and went on to teach mechanical engineering at a Finnish technical school. The rest is Finnish patenting history. Now the man greets visitors on the wall of the oldest and largest Finnish company in the industry, Kolster, in Salmisaari, Helsinki. It is time to celebrate as this year marks 145 years since Rudolf first acted as a patent attorney.

In the early days of Kolster, the company received a few patent applications a year, with the number rising to 77 in 1899. For a long time, the applications were from the metal, engineering and wood processing industries.

Most of the applications managed by Rudolf Kolster, who had international connections, came from abroad. He was also a sought-after expert in Finland and, on request, worked in the Senate as an expert on the Patent Decree, for example. 

However, the numerous tasks took their toll on Rudolf and, at the end of the century, his son Friedrich became his aid and successor. 

Fifth Generation in Management 

After Rudolf’s death, the agency was named Rud. Kolster Söner. During the early decades of the 20th century, the agency also became an important expert in the management of trademarks.

There was little work during the war years, but difficult years were overcome partly thanks to a good attitude.  In the bleakest recession year of 1992, the company’s annual report read: “Svåra tider öker idéer”, or “Difficult times generate ideas”. 

This attitude of adaptability as well as continuity have been the keys to Kolster’s success. Kolster was also among the first to set up a pension fund and an incentive scheme for its employees. 

Kolster has remained a family company all these years – already for five generations. The management has always included representatives of the family, which has ensured that the spiritual legacy of Rudolf Kolster has survived and grown as society develops and the world changes. 

Well-Known Around the World 

The history of Kolster is also a continuum of long career stories. The widow of Rudolf Kolster’s son Friedrich, Thyra, inherited the company and was employed by the company for five decades, some of them in management.  The same testament also provided stakes for Rudolf’s grandsons by his two other sons – Arne and Åke Kolster – in order to keep the company a family business. This duo actively participated in international organisation activities after World War II, which was one of the key factors in the company’s growth. 

Arne Kolster was employed by the agency for 60 years, three decades of which he served as CEO. After Åke, his son Björn Kolster was appointed Chairman of the Board. The company’s current Chairman of the Board is a fifth-generation Kolster employee, Björn’s son Kim Kolster. 

Brands on Forbes Lists 

In 145 years, the one-man company of Rudolf Kolster has grown into a team of more than a hundred experienced professionals. Kolster’s customers include more than a quarter of Fortune Global Top 100 companies and nearly a third of the world's best-known brands on the Forbes 100 list. More than 200 global trademark owners rely on Kolster for anti-counterfeiting. 

I wonder if Rudolf Kolster guessed what kind of a legacy he would leave in the world of IP! 

The Tracks Lead to the Engineer with a Grim Beard? 

The mythical figure of engineering students, the Grim Bearded Engineer, is believed to represent Rudolf. The figure has been giving campaign orders for engineering students to do good since the 1920s. Kolster is known to have been a well-liked and respected teacher whose portrait used to grace the wall of the Student Union of the Helsinki University of Technology. There is also a statue honouring the engineer with a grim beard in Espoo.

No one has actually seen the engineer with a grim beard, but when you look at Rudolf’s portrait in the lobby of Kolster’s headquarters, it is easy to find points of resemblance. Rudolf has a straight back, a firm gaze – and a very grim and sturdy beard.

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