Swedish Royalty and Nordic Business Leaders Meet at Penn’s Landing Symposium

Peter W. Quigley, for GPA -- What do a trendsetting restaurateur, a furniture design company, a video game company and a global hospitality and travel company have in common? They were all founded by Swedes and Finns, and can trace their company’s business culture, ethics and goals to values they say are basic to their Nordic roots.

On Saturday May 11, the New Sweden Alliance hosted a symposium focused on "Making it In America" at the Independence Seaport Museum marking the 375th anniversary of the founding of New Sweden in Delaware. Philadelphia’s first European settlers were from that Swedish colony. The event mingled dignitaries, business leaders and an appreciation of Nordic cultural values. Swedish royalty King Gustav and Queen Silvia were in attendance. Joining them were Mayor Michael Nutter and the Swedish and Finnish ambassadors to the United States. The symposium posed this question. “How have these Swedish and Finish founded businesses made it in America and how do their Nordic roots influence their businesses?”

Dr. Stephen Tang, President of University Science Center moderating the panel of four business leaders claimed to himself have grown up in “New Sweden”, by that meaning Delaware.

Also in attendance was Marilyn Carlson Nelson, former CEO of Carlson, a top global hospitality and travel firm. Nelson is the granddaughter of the company’s Swedish-American founder. At least two generations removed from Sweden, Nelson is still nonetheless a frequent visitor to Sweden and promoter of her grandfather’s legacy.

She likes to quote Swedish American poet Carl Sandburg, “When a nation goes down, or a society perishes, one condition may always be found; they forgot where they came from. They lost sight of what had brought them along”.

Nelson said the previous generations that came to America and built the country and businesses we benefit from today were very aware that they had a chance to do something big. She says her company, Carlson, remembers this legacy and incorporates the ethics of justice, passion and inclusiveness.

The next panelist was the Finnish CEO of Remedy Games, a computer gaming company that so far has done half a billion dollars in sales. Matias Myllyrinne’s company is known for developing stories that draw players into the game deeply. Finland’s impact on the computer gaming business is out of all proportion to the size of the country. Enabling the capacity in its staff to think and design innovatively is one of Remedy’s high priorities. Putting together teams of people with very different skills and backgrounds "creates friction," Myllryinne says, and "enhances the creative process."

Finnish furniture design company Artek has a long history in the US. The company had a display at the New York World’s Fair in 1939 and is very active in the US today. CEO Mirkku Kullberg came from the fashion design industry to Artek and brings a strong sense of her Nordic values for work and innovation. “Good isn’t enough in this world today, you have to be excellent”, she says. The Scandinavian sense of the importance of justice is a passion for her as CEO. "People receive many messages today and can see what is true," she believes. “Whatever we do or build, there has to be a true story.”

The last panelist is Swedish, but as he says was born "a little south of there." Marcus Samuelsson was adopted by a Swedish family out of an Ethiopian orphanage as a very young child and lives today knowing this chance saved his life.

As a boy growing up in Sweden, his fisherman uncle taught him life lessons. “We would go out in the boat and bring back 50 or 60 mackerel. Nothing was wasted. 10 or 15 fish were given to grandmother to prepare food for the family. 15 were sent to be smoked. 15 were given to me and my sister to sell for cash. The remainder was given to the needy.”

Today Samuelsson’s company has 20 restaurants in locations from San Francisco to Stockholm. The Red Rooster in Harlem was one nobody said could be done. The investment was between $1-2 million. “When we went to do the restaurant we told the local people we were going to hire people from Harlem and we needed training for people to work there.” Red Rooster, like his uncle’s fishing, seeks to waste as little as possible, and to provides the opportunity to people from Harlem to be trained as staff. “It is all about finding a way to cook food and eat with a spiritual focus”, he says. Samuelsson’s commitment to design, justice and sustainability are all evident in the Red Rooster model. 

375 years later, Philadelphia’s origins as a Swedish colony can be remembered by old place names like "Swedeford" or "Queen Village" named after the Swedish queen of the time of settlement, Christina. Sweden’s ties here in the present are also important. Today in the Philadelphia region, great Swedish companies like IKEA, SKF and QlikTech, among others, are located here. Their present-day success demonstrates that Nordic companies committed to value, authenticity and innovation are indeed "making it in America."

Author Peter W. Quigley is an investment management professional based in the Greater Philadelphia area. He is Managing Partner and CIO of Renvyle Partners, LLC

Photo courtesy of New Sweden Alliance Incorporated