Who was Heikki Herlin?

Heikki had become the president of Kone after his father, Harald Herlin, in 1932, in one of the worst years of the depression. The young man, who originally wanted to become a farmer, had trained as an engineer in order to honour his father’s wishes and then travelled around the United States for several years, visiting industrial corporations, in particular the Otis Elevator Company. The years abroad turned Herlin into a cosmopolitan who spoke five languages and was at ease in high society. Herlin was later able to make use of his diplomatic skills in, for example, Kone’s countless international partnership projects, Rotary activities, the European Cultural Foundation and the Finnish–Soviet Scientific–Technical Cooperation Committee.

A feature story published in Uusi Kuvalehti, a Finnish periodical, in 1956 wondered whether Herlin was a farmer or a Helsinki-based ‘vuorineuvos’ (an honorary title granted by the President of Finland to leading figures in industry and commerce). “He would probably want to present himself as a farmer.” The paper described Herlin as an industrial democrat who believes, on the one hand, in individual responsibility and, on the other, in collective responsibility. According to the paper, Herlin thought that an industrial plant’s primary task was to guarantee workers a certain level of life satisfaction, in addition to a secure income. Indeed, Herlin had made major investments in the well-being of Kone Oy’s personnel in the 1940s and 1950s. For example, the company began to pay child allowances before such support became statutory. The company also provided loans to workers to support their home building, and organised club activities and summer holiday activities for children. The reporter of Uusi Kuvalehti concluded that the spirit within the company was the reason why the turnover of workers was very low compared to the usual figures in the sector.

Heikki Herlin firmly believed that one can succeed by working hard, at least if one is also wise. He also believed that the success of society is in the end down to individuals. Herlin, who was already retired then, described his view of success to an interviewer of a metal industry magazine: “There are wise and foolish, short-sighted and far-sighted people in every generation, just like in every party. The fate of people and groups of people depends on how it is all sorted out at different stages. It does not really matter much what the system is like. It is all down to people.”

Present-day sources paint a varied and somewhat contradictory picture of Heikki Herlin and his world view. He was a true cosmopolitan, but he also favoured very formal practices, even perfectionism. His pedantry manifested itself in minor details that he wanted to check and correct. Herlin had once donated a Volga to a driving school of engineering students. When the students expressed a wish to purchase a new car of a different make for the driving school, the treasurer of the student union wanted to first provide the donor, i.e. Herlin, with an account of every penny used. This led to an exchange of letters during which all of the car’s servicing expenses were listed, including oil filter prices. The same pedantry was seen in how Herlin outlined the structure of a transport case for a donkey purchased from Spain, or in how he perused travel plans for a trip abroad. Herlin even sent a comment to an editor of Encyclopaedia Britannica regarding translation mistakes in the Book of the Year 1965, because the names of two Finnish newspapers, Sosialistinen aikakauslehti and Työmies, were misspelled in an article on Otto Kuusinen.

Receiving the title of ‘vuorineuvos’, applied for by Pekka Herlin together with Kustaa Vilkuna, in 1953 was an important event for Herlin, and he was referred to as ‘vuorineuvos’ in all correspondence following the awarding. Herlin himself called his son ‘Bachelor of Economics Herlin’ and his daughter ‘Mrs Paavolainen’ in all written messages, from letters to telegrams. This kind of formality may even have extended to his private life, as is revealed in Koneen ruhtinas, a book by John Simon. Herlin’s grandchildren remember a distant, reserved grandfather, in contrast to their warm-hearted, down-to-earth mother’s father, Kustaa Vilkuna.

Heikki Herlin was also a philanthropist who practised what he preached, examples of which are his investments in the well-being of Kone Oy’s workers and the numerous loans and allowances granted before the establishment of Kone Foundation. The strong Christian spiritual awakening experienced by Herlin in the MRA movement in the late 1930s probably also acted as a catalyst for these activities.

Heikki Herlin’s wife Anna had become acquainted with the international Christian Oxford Group movement that had reached Finland, and she also drew her husband into their activities. Run from the United States, the movement expanded at the turn of the 1940s and changed its name to Moral Re-Armament, or MRA. The movement was based on conversion work, compliance with strict moral principles and the idea of personal conversion that would eventually lead to social change via group discussions, soul-searching, repentance and the re-evaluation of one’s own activity. MRA’s ideological objective was a brave new world without wars, hunger, fear and anger. The key tools for achieving this were absolute honesty, unselfishness, purity and love. The movement spread all over the world and was also relatively popular in Scandinavia. An important forum was a training centre in Caux, Switzerland, to which Heikki Herlin travelled many times, alone or with his wife.

MRA was also severely criticised. The image of women supported by the movement’s ideologists was very conservative, their activities were openly homophobic, and in the 1930s the movement’s leaders admired the propaganda skills of the Third Reich. Daniel Sack, who has researched the history of the movement, says that MRA represented a kind of soft fascism. In Finland, however, their small-scale activities were not criticised much. In one newspaper article, the movement was called “a Salvation Army for the gentry” , because the members were often from higher social classes and many were prominent figures in industry or commerce.

MRA had a huge impact on Heikki Herlin’s world view and work as a managing director. One can only guess at the reasons why the movement appealed to him. It offered him opportunities for networking, and for discussing not only faith but also major, topical questions concerning business life and industry. There were probably deeper reasons as well that can be found in Heikki Herlin’s personal history, family and life experiences.

Even though the Finnish and non-Finnish friends that Herlin had made while involved in MRA were important to him, he did not hesitate to step back from the movement’s actual activities in the mid-1950s. It was at that time that the leaders tightened their policy against communism, which became almost paranoid. Herlin was not particularly active politically, but he was a practitioner of Realpolitik. Trade relations with the Soviet Union and pure common sense drove Herlin and several of his friends away from MRA activities in the late 1950s. His Christian conviction did not fade after his withdrawal, nor did he stop seeing his old friends, including the leading figures of MRA. It was due to the influence of Heikki Herlin and his wife Anna that Kone Foundation later provided some support for other Christian organisations.

Heikki Herlin had turned Kone into a well-known company with high-quality operations in the 1930s and 1940s. However, towards the end of the 1950s, Kone’s organisation and methods of working were in need of major renewal, if the company were to succeed in the changing markets. Large investments in workplace well-being did not help in increasing business efficiency. It was not until 1958, when Pekka Herlin took the helm, that the course was changed and the company began to develop into a well-managed corporation. Heikki Herlin continued to handle the company’s international relations, and was also otherwise actively involved in many projects in the 1960s, particularly those having to do with the Soviet Union. The power shift was very natural, proving that Heikki Herlin was not going to cling to his position, but understood when a change and fresh ideas were needed in the company’s operations.


Translated from original text by Tarja Vikström.