Date and place of birth: 15 May 1972, Philadelphia, USA.
Education: International Business, Aalto School of Economics.
Family: Married to a woman from Oulu. Two kids, Sonja and Henri.
When I was young I wanted to be… a bus driver.
Helsinki’s best asset is… its people.
I wish that… it would be a little bit warmer than what it is now.

Attracting international companies to the capital region is born out of Micah Gland’s pride for his adopted homeland.

A story familiar to many foreigners living here sees Finns living abroad eventually wanting to return home, driven by a bout of homesickness, inevitably bringing back with them a ‘souvenir’ from their time abroad in the shape of a partner or spouse. For Micah Gland’s Finland-Swedish mother, 1987 was the year that she brought his father, his brother and himself back here to Northern Europe, after living in the USA since before he was born.

This was not an easy move for young Gland, then 15, who put up considerable resistance at first to this change of environment. However, fast-forward some 25 years and his perspective on Finland, and the capital region in particular, has changed dramatically. Currently acting CEO of Greater Helsinki Promotion, under the banner of Helsinki Business Hub, Gland and his team endeavour to sell greater Helsinki as a prime location for doing business for international companies.

You say you were brought here 25 years ago kicking and screaming by your parents, was it really that dramatic a move?

Absolutely. There were threats. I said, ‘Have a nice time, I’m moving in with my aunt and uncle’. They said, ‘You’re not 18 as yet, so if you don’t come then we are going to use police force to get you on the plane’. I was not very happy. I had a pretty good life in Philadelphia at the time. The idea of packing up and moving to Finland was not much fun.

But my dad’s a pretty smart guy. I was 15 years old, a pimply-faced teenager with raging hormones. Dad gave me some interesting statistics that there are significantly more girls in Finland than boys, so my chances of finding a girlfriend would be that much greater. Less competition, you know. It was only later I realised that ‘by ‘more girls than boys’, dad was referring to all of the elderly women who live longer than men. I was duped. [laughs]

How was it when you first got off the plane? What was life like here back then?

I went to a Swedish-speaking school as we thought it would be easier to pick up than Finnish. I was a bit of a freak show. I was a bit of a celebrity for the first half a year. I’m a little introverted and shy by nature, but it was fun. But when I came back to school after Christmas vacation, and especially the following year people were like, ‘What are you still doing here?’ They just assumed that I was an exchange student.

Finland was different to what it is today, the number of international people was much less. Shopping, food, entertainment, travel – it was all less international than today. I was getting questions like, ‘Is life in the USA like it is in Dallas?’ It changed quite a lot from ‘87 to ‘97. It’s like night and day in terms of the international flavour.

How was it integrating here in Swedish?

I think it was a huge benefit. It might have been easier than Finnish as the language is simply easier and the Swedish-speaking Finns are a little bit more accessible, a little bit more open, maybe. I think that to fully integrate into Finland, though, you need to speak Finnish. Or at least you have to try. It wouldn’t be enough to know only Swedish. You are really limited in Finland just knowing Swedish.

I don’t think you need to speak perfect Finnish. You have to come up to a certain basic level. I could never be in this job for example without understanding and reading Finnish. It just makes it easier.

So, what is it that you do here?

We are the investment promotion agency for the region. To keep it really short sometimes I say that I am selling Helsinki. I am talking to CEOs or R&D directors of big and small international companies and I’m telling them why they should be doing business in Helsinki. Why is that important? Well, it gives jobs to Finns and they pay taxes. It’s all about maintaining and increasing Finland’s global competitiveness and prosperity in the future.

What aspects of the local culture do you promote to attract these businesses?

Everything. Finland is a great place to live and a great place to do business. I am Finnish myself and I love the Finns. I love pretty much everything about the way we are. I think we have a lot to teach the world, actually. If the world looked a little closer at the Finns and tried to learn from us, I think the world would be a better place.

We have a lot that we could teach about integrity, openness, and sisu. These traits cut out a lot of the mistrust and BS of business. I’m proud to promote everything about what it means to be a Finn and why it’s good to do business here.

How do people typically take this?

Those who know agree, and those who are yet to know are a little surprised. But I have yet to have an experience when someone has come and visited and not felt pretty much the same way.

The Finnish attitude is often really appreciated by international business people. It’s like, ‘Let’s get down to business, we have two hours’. There’s real openness, there’s no NDAs or legal documents being signed first, or long introductions and lots of small talk. There’ll be a quick round of introductions and then, ‘What we’re trying to do is this, and we’ll finish up with these next steps’. If the Finns are given next steps, we follow through with it. It’s seen every favourably. The essence of the thing is there – can I work with these people? Can I trust them? Will something get done that’s good quality?

We are kind of cultural middlemen. Our job is to translate a little bit of those cultural challenges. A typical situation is a Finnish company looking for money. Stereotypically, this company has great technology, is very innovative, has great science – but is really terrible at selling themselves. Our job is to help that company get better at its pitching and also to explain to the people on the other side of the table that look, this might be a little rougher than what you are used to. Take an extra minute, dig down. Don’t expect this to be as smooth as what you would typically get from the Swedes, for instance. But what you are going to get is better quality, better substance. And if they take the time to do that then they are usually pretty happy.

I look at it as if you are not willing to do the extra work, or try to dig a little deeper and try to understand the Finnish side, then you don’t deserve what we have to offer. We have limited resources in this country; there is not a lot of people or a lot of money being invested into international business promotion. I think it’s a great filter. If you are truly not interested and willing to do what it takes, go someplace else. We are only interested in the ones that are willing to do that.

You can afford to do this?

I think you have to because if you don’t you end up spending all of your time doing shoddy work, running rabid. We try to give a high level of service to the right companies and the right investors and not serve everybody that walks through the door.

I must ask is common ground often found in the sauna?

Actually, yes, certainly…

Do you have a sauna here?

Actually there is a sauna upstairs. And we use it from time to time. We typically use it when we want to give guests a mind-blowing experience, something that’s unique and fun. Anything that can differentiate us or make them remember Helsinki is good.

Every other place in the world that we compete with, be it Shanghai, Chicago, London, Stockholm or Tallinn, all say exactly the same things: we are strong in ICT, life sciences, cleantech, knowledge intensive business services, these kinds of things. The only thing that’s truly unique is your geographical location. Which is true. Helsinki’s geographical location is unique to Helsinki. Every geographical location is unique – access to this place, gateway to that place, hub of this region. Anything we can do to differentiate ourselves is really important.

So, aside from the sauna, how else can Helsinki differentiate itself?

Right now Helsinki is the World Design Capital 2012, but it is not just a yearlong celebration. Design has been a part of Helsinki’s strategy since 2004. We as a company aren’t heavily involved in the activities this year but we are involved in what happens in the future related to design and what it means in terms of business and international investment. When we talk about design, and you listen to the Major for instance, it’s not just coffee cups, buildings and clothes, which may be the traditional idea, we’re talking about the design of services, the design of the city. He talks about the redesign of democracy, where things are much more participatory. It’s design thinking in everything that you do – including business.

Here at Greater Helsinki Promotion, we are also playing around with the idea where now and in the future businesses prosper by doing good. Helsinki is a good place to find cures for diseases, alternative energy solutions, etc… Anything to make the world a better place, and to profit while doing this. You can do that and make money at the same time. Companies are already understanding that in order to survive the next 10 years, this has to be their thinking; it’s a lot about creating shared value. It is saying that if I want to make money and be sure that my business is thriving and growing, the only way I can do that is by making sure that the entire network, ecosystem of which I’m a part is also thriving and growing. That kind of thinking exists in many companies. This is the way of the future.

I really haven’t found a city yet that’s adopting this differentiator. Helsinki is a good place to make it happen. And we can do it by inviting people and companies that feel the same way, and really making this an interesting place.

Finland’s branding strategy was all about solving the world’s problems. This is the same kind of thinking. The world is in the midst of a pretty volatile time. If you take a broader view of where we are, the Baltic Sea region, this is pretty much a region of good news. There are not natural disasters, not a lot of crime, no war, a stable government, transparency. Even the economy is still doing pretty well.

There’s a lot of uncertainty, but by and large we are doing well here. People care, there are a lot of smart people around. Our politicians are engaged, smart and they are people who really do care. The political games take a back seat to actually wanting to make things better. Whereas in many other places it’s all about shooting down the other guy, and you don’t get anything done that way.

Actually, excuse the crass connection, but I can’t help but point to the recent events in Hyvinkää. On the one hand you have these great aspects of society here you’ve just spoken about, but on the other you have this growing problem of gun violence in recent years. How do you view that?

There are certainly things that need to be worked on. There are things that are certainly getting worse and not getting better. But even with these horrible tragedies and even with the massacre in Norway – compared to many other places, life is still safe and valued here. It doesn’t mean that it’s okay, or we shouldn’t be concerned about it or be working to do something about it but all in all, there are many places that would trade places with us in a heartbeat.

We were just in Chicago, and met with the treasurer of Cook County, and she was explaining the different organisations under her and where her money goes. She has 123 children awaiting trial as adults for murder in her county. That’s her responsibility. I hear that and I say that we definitely have problems, but comparatively… I don’t think any place is a utopia, I still think this is a good place to raise your kids and good place to be.

You have a couple of children yourself, how has it been to raise them here? Do you often think that if you were living in the States you’d raise them a certain way?

We are here by choice. We very much went through a process of where do we want to be and where do we want to live and raise our family. Part of that is that we are Finns and we have family here. It’s very typical that Finns go abroad to work, but as soon as they have families they tend to move back. Finland has the world’s best educational system – that’s a pretty good starting point.

There are a lot of places in the world where you think it’s a nice place to visit but I wouldn’t want to live there. I don’t think Helsinki is one of those places. I think it’s a really great place to visit and really good place to live as well. But November is horrible – you can’t get around it. I wouldn’t live here without the airport that allows you to escape when needed. [laughs]

James O’Sullivan