Home » Archive » Leverage brillance: embrace weakness

, written by Jeremy. Read the commentary.

Our company is nearly done its work to help Saskatchewan identify its jurisdictional advantages.

We’re hunting those few areas where the province is perfectly positioned through unique capacities, natural resources, and industrial ecosystem to capture significant market opportunities.

We spoke with more than 50 executives in 40 of Saskatchewan’s most important companies. Uranium miners, potash producers, crop geneticists, power generators, mill owners, and university researchers – all agree on one thing: Saskatchewan needs a crisis.

It needs a crisis? An odd thing to wish for.

Interview after interview, CEOs and VPs are asking: Where are the burning ships? What will force us forward when indifference leaves us stagnant?

Why are they looking for crisis? What are they looking at that suggests crisis will force Saskatchewan to leverage its strength and embrace its weakness?

Turns out, Finland is one of the places they’re looking. Once rich in natural resources including forests, minerals, and agriculture, the country has transitioned to high-tech machinery and robust information technologies. Saskatchewan wants to go too.

>>>

“The weak shows off his strength, hides his defects. The magnificent exhibits defects, like ornaments.” Nassim N Taleb

Around 1860 Finland embraced industrialization but, even by 1910, farm production still used up 70 percent of labor.

During the First World War its metalworking and shipbuilding industries expanded rapidly – supplying the war machine in Russia. But machines don’t create food and in the year immediately following the War, Finland was forced to lean on United States aid to avoid both physical and economic starvation.

By 1922 Finland had recovered. Leveraging strong trade relationships with Western Europe, particularly Germany, Finland replaced its languishing relationship with the Soviets. Lumber, pulp and paper (85 percent of exports) were traded for much needed food and investment goods.

Agricultural reform moved agriculture and forest land back into the hands small producers. The government also nationalized a big part of the mining and wood-processing industry.

Nationalization drove investment. Public money poured into mines, foundries, wood and paper mills, and shipyards – adding value to previously raw resources. By the late 1920’s modernization was well under way.
In the 1930s Britain replaced Germany as Finland’s largest trading partner. Its trade agreements and growing market demand drove Finnish paper production. Its industries expanded, the depression years. Growth continued until 1939.

The Winter War of 1939 was the start of a five-year slide. By 1944, bitter wars with the Soviet Union and Germany, had Finland on its knees. Heavy reparations to the Soviet Union cost the country dearly and included 12 percent of its territory (valuable farmland and industrial facilities).

In the following years, Finland’s reparations were largely supplied by its metalworking industries (comprising three-fourths of the goods delivered to the Soviet Union). This, in effect, forced investment in metalworking that would later become a key strength for the country. By 1952 reparations payments were complete but the metalworking industry continued to grow. The Finns faced no competition in the Soviet Union and borrowed from Sweden and the United States to finance infrastructure and growth.

From 1950 to 1974, Finland’s gross national product grew at around five percent — well above the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) average of four and a half. But growth was driven by volatile commodity prices, particularly lumber, and fluctuations averaged eight percent of gross domestic product.

Volatility forced Finland to restructure. They moved quickly and, often, brutally. Manufacturing output was increased significantly but at the cost of displacing farmers who found no other employment.
Through the 50’s to the 80’s Finland pursued aggressive economic policies. Strict control internally and liberal foreign trade in industrial goods drove the foundation for future growth. Welfare programs and income settlements slowed inflation and increased productivity.

The oil crisis, from 1973 to 1979, hit the Finns hard. Finland imported over 80 percent of its energy and its trading partners, particularly Western markets, were impacted too. The rapid growth of previous years was now unsustainable – importing enough raw materials, capital and labor was impossible.

During the 1980s, industry was restructured, eliminating many inefficient producers and consolidating healthy enterprises. Private services, especially banking and insurance, expanded rapidly.
By 1986 Finland was one of the most prosperous countries in the world. Agriculture, forestry, and fishing had fallen to just eight percent of GDP (from 25 percent in 1950). Mining, manufacturing, construction and utilities were at 35 percent (40 percent in 1950). Services had grown from 34 percent in 1950 to almost 58 percent – transportation, communications, engineering, finance and commerce were increasingly important as the economy developed and diversified.

>>>

Finland was forced by crisis to change: war, reparations, and starvation are great motivators. But beyond these acute and painful pressures, Finland also embraced its weaknesses:

– Reparations locked Finland to the Soviet Union, the Soviets became its largest market.
– The country was resource dependant, it grew services on the resources.
– Finland depended on other countries for financial assistance, these countries became trading partners.
– Volatility among commodities destabilized the economy, Finland drove to add-value.
– Inability to sustain rapid growth was embraced as good reason for more services in communications, engineering, finance and commerce.

Finland’s weaknesses are worn as ornaments. They are its reasons to be one of the most prosperous economies on the planet.

>>>

I’ve often argued that we should ignore our weaknesses. Focus on strengths. This was mostly a response to the vicious habit we have, at least in North America, of spending all our time investing into our gaps. I still think it’s terrible.

But, it’s worth adding a nuance: Choose brilliance and embrace your weakness. Do as Taleb suggests, wear it as an ornament.

Comments are closed.