In 2014, Kolster Oy Ab is celebrating its jubilee year. It is the 140th anniversary of dedicated business in the field of intellectual property rights, guided by five generations of the Kolster family. Björn Kolster, the Chairman of the Board, represents the fourth generation in the family firm. Since 2007 the Executive Management has included Kim Kolster, who represents the fifth generation and who has already taken up the challenge of transferring the company to the next generation.A vast majority, about 80 %, of all companies in Finland are family firms. Of the large and medium-sized companies 40 % are family businesses, and even among the top 500 companies the percentage is 20. A family enterprise in the fifth generation is something quite unique, however.
Studies show that only every third company is handed over to the second generation, and only one in ten makes it to the third generation. Throughout its history, Kolster has not only successfully risen to the challenges of passing the business to next generations but also survived the wars, recessions, and changes in the market environment.
Father and son, Björn and Kim, the fourth and the fifth generation, sat down and talked about the history and future of the Kolster family business, including their own paths in the company.
In a family business, the family history is bound to be closely entwined with the company’s history. Björn’s first memories of the company date back from the early 1950’s, as seen from the perspective of a five-year-old boy. The office was located in Runeberginkatu, in an apartment owned by the family.
- All my uncles and aunts were there. I used to sneak around at night in the quiet office, which was so cramped that most of the files had to be stored in the attic and some in the bathroom, too, Björn remembers.
When the company in 1958 moved to office premises in Lönnrotinkatu, Björn was there to help carry the removal boxes. In the next move, 30 years later, it was Kim who in turn contributed to carrying the removal boxes, now to Iso Roobertinkatu.
- Carrying the removal boxes was one of my first Kolster memories, recalls Kim.
It was not self-evident for either of them to continue in the family firm. Having been sufficiently sort of exposed to tacit knowledge, however, they have both eventually wanted to commit themselves to the company and its values.
Björn went to law school where, as early as the 1960’s, industrial property law was not among the main areas of study. Nonetheless, he came up with the idea of researching patent law for his master’s degree thesis, indicating an interest in the field. In 1972 Björn started his career as a trademark lawyer at Kolster.
Kim, in turn, first got a degree in the IT field, worked as an IT expert, got a second degree, this time in administration, became interested in international business and graduated as MBA from the Hanken School of Economics. He has found his role at Kolster as a director in administration, focusing on strategy, international business, IT, HR, economics and finance.
A new generation always brings along a new era and novel ways of strategic thinking, but decisions are still made in appreciation of the company values. According to Kim, the most important priorities and values include continuity, reinvention and, above all, always putting clients and staff first, before the company.
- The client’s interest comes first. In addition, we have all along tried to take good care of our staff, and this is yet another principle we will keep adhering to. Kolster’s competence and strength are based on these values, emphasizes Kim.
- We are not after uncontrollable growth; a small but controlled business is a more sensible alternative for me. There are no greedy, insatiable owners lurking behind the scenes, either. We don’t live in the quarterly economy but want to develop our customer relationships on a long-term basis, Kim assures.
At the beginning of Björn’s career in the 1970’s, most of the clients were foreign.
- Already back then, we represented the whole world. Kolster was well known in America, Japan as well as everywhere else in the IP field. We took very actively part in the operation of national and international IP organizations and conferences, recalls Björn his first decades at Kolster.
Today, also Kim participates actively in global PR, continuing on the way paved by the previous generations. A specifically attractive region at the moment – besides the USA, which is always of current interest – is China, where Kolster has worked in close cooperation with Chinese agencies already since the 1980’s.
- We are constantly working on improving our relationships and network of colleagues. The relationships are also valuable for our domestic clients when they need local, individualized and reliable information on the IP field. We can then phone a friend, says Kim.
International relationships have played an extremely important role in Kolster’s history, since according to the ethical norms in the field it was not allowed nor appropriate to advertise to attract customers. There was no hunting for customers, competitors were colleagues, and only the Association of Finnish Patent Attorneys was allowed to advertise. The ban on advertising applied to business both in Finland and abroad.
The advertising ban was deleted from national procedures only as late as the mid-1990’s, upon the arrival of EU competition directives. This boosted the trend of international IP treaties, which meant fewer foreign commissions for Kolster. It was time to create a new strategy and start investing actively in domestic customers. It was not, however, entirely uncomplicated to become profiled as the IP agent for Finnish companies:
- When we started the first offices outside Helsinki in the 1980’s, we weren’t allowed to independently advertise that they even existed, but only through the joint advertisements placed by the Association of Finnish Patent Attorneys! says Björn.
With the rise of Nokia in the 1990’s, Finnish companies grew more and more aware of and active in protecting their intellectual property rights. IP-wise, Nokia’s example was extremely important to the rest of the Finnish industries. Back then, too, the first patent litigation to attract wide publicity in Finland, a case between Nokia and Motorola, served as a wake-up call for companies to consider their own protection strategies.
In future, both Björn and Kim want to see ”a still better company that is a true service company”. They also hope that there will be someone to continue the family business.
In order for Kolster to be able to serve the customers even better, communication with the clients has to be more intensive and efficient. It is necessary to know the customer’s line of business, processes and strategy to make full service a reality.
- The goal is that the processes of both the client and Kolster are made to function like a zipper: the pieces interlock all the way, says Kim.
This is now closer than ever, since besides patenting, various searches as well as data screenings and analyses, expert opinions and strategy-oriented consultation have emerged as increasingly important services provided by Kolster. It is also crucial to offer the client companies in-house resources and diverse IP Legal services ranging from contracts to conflict management.
Last summer the company’s continuity was further enhanced by a family member when Johan Strömberg, the grandson of Arne Kolster, who represents the family in the third generation, joined the company’s Board. Also Kim himself has three sons growing up, who, so far, are more interested in becoming professional ice hockey players, though. Who knows, some day one of them might be carrying the removal boxes again?
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