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New Finnish book: Microsoft's Elop was no Trojan horse, just a terrible boss

A new book by journalists from the Finnish business daily Kauppalehti looks to set the record straight on the role of former Nokia boss Stephen Elop. Titled "Operation Elop", the book rubbishes popular perceptions of the Microsoft man as a Trojan horse deployed to ready the company's mobile phone division for a cheap sale to platform partner Microsoft. The truth is more mundane, the writers argue: Elop was just a bum boss.

Stephen Elop
No kids' glove treatment for Former Nokia chief executive officer Stephen Elop. Image: Nokia

Canadian Microsoft hatchet man Stephen Elop led Finland’s once-proud mobile phone giant Nokia for three years from 2010 until the announcement that the company was being sold to software behemoth Microsoft at a budget price of five billion euros.

Released Tuesday, "Operation Elop" recounts the final act of the mobile company’s story from Elop’s arrival in Finland up to his departure. The authors, Pekka Nykänen and Merina Salminen pull no punches in their assessment of Elop’s term at the helm of what was once the world’s leading mobile phone maker.

“By many measures Elop is one of the world’s worst – if not the worst – chief executives,” Nykänen and Salminen declared in the book.

The writers arrive at this uncharitable conclusion after interviewing more than 100 persons, most of them former Nokians. Elop was not named as one of the interviewees.

The journalists also delve into quantitative data to assess Elop’s performance during his "Nokia years". They wrote that one day before Elop took up the top job, the company’s market valuation stood at 29.5 billion euros. Three years later when Nokia’s phone division was offloaded to Microsoft, the market value had plummeted by more than half to just 11 billion euros. The numbers that showed every day of Elop’s leadership cost the company 18 million euros.

According to the book, Nokia’s demise couldn’t be attributed to poor decisions made during the time of Elop’s successor, Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo.

“When Elop started (in 2010) Nokia’s smartphone sales were growing. Elop’s job was to plug the holes. No explanations needed. He failed on his own,” they wrote.

”(Elop’s) burning platform memo has become a legendary example of how a CEO can destroy everything in just one stroke,” the authors charged in the book, referring to one of Elop's landmark communications to staff in 2011, in which he signaled disruptive changes needed to reverse hemorraghing market share. The memo preceded the decision to abandon Nokia's Symbian mobile phone platform in favour of Microsoft's Windows Phone operating system.

Arrogance and unclear lines of responsibility fatal

According to the new retrospective, in spite of his many failings Elop wasn’t responsible for single-handedly "killing off" Nokia’s mobile phone business – that was caused by Finns’ arrogance, obsession with costs, unclear chains of responsibility and poor decisions made in the boardroom.

“Elop’s role can be summarised accordingly: he failed in his attempts to save Nokia. He made monumental mistakes – but all in good faith. He took massive risks by placing all of his eggs in one basket (the Windows Phone platform),” Nykänen and Salminen concluded.

Nokia jettisoned its proprietary Symbian operating system, which already had a significant share of the smartphone market. However instead of Windows Phone taking over, Samsung’s challenger platform Android usurped the market leader’s position.

All of the persons interviewed for the book were however agreed on one point: the perception that Elop was somehow part of an elaborate conspiracy to dismantle Nokia was entirely without foundation.

“Elop wasn’t a Trojan horse. Microsoft didn’t use him to infiltrate Nokia so they could buy the phone business at a discount later on,” said one interviewee.

“Elop didn’t sell off the phone business to Microsoft. That was done by (chairman) Risto Siilasmaa and the Nokia board,” another remarked.

The book’s final assessment of the Elop years is banal and unexceptional in resorting to the power of hindsight.

“Elop was the wrong man to lead Nokia. Someone else could have saved Nokia’s phone business.”

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