Tapani Karjalainen: We upgraded the technology for Gorbachev and Reagan’s press conference

Tapani Karjalainen: We upgraded the technology for Gorbachev and Reagan’s press conference

An interview with Tapani Karjalainen, former president of Qualitron (FIN).

— Where and when were you born, and who were your parents?

I was born in 1952 in Finland, in a small village in the East of Finland. My parents were simple working people. There were five children in our family, and I am the oldest. My parents moved because they wanted to find better jobs. The whole family moved to the nearest big city, and my father got a much better job there. We lived in that town for four years. Later, for the same reason, we moved to the city where I am living now. We bought a flat, and then when we moved to Riihimäki, my parents bought a house.

— Did you help your parents out a lot, as the oldest child?

Yes, of course I had to help. Both my parents worked. We had a young girl who came every now and then to take care of us, but of course I was the oldest one so I had to take care of the others.

— What did your father do?

He was a local manager of a sports union.

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Tapani Karjalainen: We upgraded the technology for Gorbachev and Reagan’s press conference

— Were you good in school? What were your favourite subjects?

Oh, I was very good. Sometimes not so much, but most of the time very good. The 15 minutes between lessons that we spent outside, that was the best time! I also liked sports, history, and mathematics.

— After you finished school, did you go to the army or to university?

At first, I worked for half a year. Then, I went to the army for a year. After this I started my telecommunications studies.

— What did you do in the army?

I was in the telecommunications part of the army. I was there for 11 months, which was the longest time you could stay — you could serve 8 or 11 months. I decided to stay for longer, because I wanted to be an officer. To do this, you had to be there for 11 months. I did not end up staying, because the salary was low and the work was boring.

— Why did you choose this field of study when you went to university?

The university happened to be in the city I was living in. I am lazy — I did not want to move! We had to pass tests to get in, so I went because this was a way to get three days off from the army. I happened to get in, so I went. I did technically have several choices, but I decided to go there because I got in.

Tapani Karjalainen: We upgraded the technology for Gorbachev and Reagan’s press conference

— When did you start being interested in technology?

I think this was by accident. I didn’t decide — I did not know where I was going to study. In fact, I had a dream to study architecture, I wanted to be a decoration architect. Then, because I got into the telecommunications industry, I decided to go in that direction.

— Did you work to support your studies, or did your parents help you?

I worked in the evenings and during the weekends, and of course I worked during the summer. I did it all myself. I earned money for my studies, mainly during the summer holidays. It was possible to get credit from the government, which I took, but because I worked very hard while I studied I didn’t have to take a lot. I paid it back almost immediately after I finished my studies.

— What was your job during your university years?

According to the rules, we had to get experience in the field we were studying. I studied telecommunications, so in the daytime I worked for Finnish Railways, in the telecommunications service department. In the evenings and during the weekends, I painted houses and did indoor reconstruction. I earned much more money doing that than doing telecommunications work!

Tapani Karjalainen: We upgraded the technology for Gorbachev and Reagan’s press conference

— You worked a lot, when did you have time to study?

In the summertime I worked very long days and weekends. In the winter I studied, and summer was for working.

— Did you live at home during university?

No, I already lived with my wife by this time. I got married in 1975, I was 23. At the time, she was a hairdresser. After this, she was a secretary, and later she opened her own business.

— How long did you have to study at the university?

For three years.

— What did you do after you finished university?

When I finished, I had to find work. At that time, the situation in Finland was quite difficult and it was not so easy to find suitable work. This is why I contacted Norway and went to Oslo. I got interviewed by a company and offered a job, but at the same time I managed to find work here in Finland, for Finnish Railways again. So, I decided to stay here. I was an engineer for special closed telephone networks.

— Why did you decide to stay in Finland and not go to Norway?

Living there is much more expensive than Finland. I also did not know anyone there, so staying in Finland was much easier. We did not have any friends, and my work would have involved travelling from the very beginning. It would have been difficult for the family, we already had our first child on the way.

 

— Could you tell us about your work with Finnish Railways?

I was a planning engineer for special closed telephone networks which they used for railway traffic. One of my responsibilities was also to arrange the recording system for locomotor traffic, so that if there was an accident it would be possible to listen to what the drivers were saying.

— How long did you work there?

Five years and nine months. I remember it so specifically because I was tired of this work and I was counting the weeks!

Tapani Karjalainen: We upgraded the technology for Gorbachev and Reagan’s press conference

 

— Where did you go after you left?

I decided that I had two options. If I continued to work for Finnish Railways, my salary had to be higher because I knew how difficult the job was. I was also looking for a job in the private sector because Finnish Railways was government-owned. The private sector had much better salaries at that time. Finally, I managed to find a job in a private company. I took it immediately.

What was this company?

The name of the company is Helectron. Originally, it was the mother company of Qualitron, so this was my ‘debut’ in the TV business. Helectron imported Sony equipment, both consumer and professional. My first position was project engineer, I started to manage different kinds of TV production projects. I was also responsible for their audio sector.

— You came into the field without much experience or education. How did you get an understanding of what you were doing and improve your knowledge?

This is an interesting question because I still don’t understand it myself! It was of course a brand new business for me. At university, there was only one hour a week where we were learning about color TV. In Finland, there still is no possibility for such an education, for TV production. I had to learn it by myself, so I loaned literature and I read everything I could. Different manufacturers also published literature about the production technology. I read everything I got into my hands. At the same time, I went to many special technical training courses abroad and collected as much information as I could.

— How did your career develop at this company?

This is an interesting story. I was first a project engineer at this company, and they hired me because they started a turnkey project business, at that time mainly for Finnish customers. There was no internet, and no electrical drawing systems, so I had to make all the drawings by hand. We started to get some good orders, mainly from the Finnish Broadcasting Company, to deliver different kinds of turnkey systems for them. Very soon, it was clear that only one person for this project was not enough. I started to hire more people, and very soon it became a project department with 10-15 people, which I was head of. In the late 80s, we started to develop electrical drawing systems. We ourselves developed a symbol library that we used to make our drawings. We started from scratch, let’s put it that way.

— When did you decide to separate and create Qualitron? Who were the shareholders, why did you decide on this name?

At first, there were already several people working in this project department in the late 80s. At the end of 1989, four other people in the department and I discussed and came to the conclusion that we are very hardworking people — why don’t we start something of our own? We established Qualitron in January of 1990. The only owner was Helectron. In 1992, my colleagues and I decided to make a proposal to the owner of Helectron to buy all the shares of Qualitron. He said he did not want to sell all the shares, but 49%. I was positively surprised at the price, and it was a deal. So, this was the start of Qualitron. At first, it was only a working name, but we also wanted it to be an easy one. We combined ‘quality’ and ‘Helectron’.

— Did you have to take out a loan to buy these shares?

Yes, I think that all of us had to take some credit.

Tapani Karjalainen: We upgraded the technology for Gorbachev and Reagan’s press conference

— What was the main change for you when you started to be a shareholder?

It didn’t change our lives that much. Half of the money the company earned went to us as the owners of half of the company. After we bought the rest of the shares, we got all the profit. We could make strategic decisions ourselves, and we did not have to ask the main shareholder anymore. The family that owned Helectron and half of Qualitron owned a big group of companies in Finland. For us, especially for me, it was quite time-consuming to write all of these reports. After we became the only shareholders, we did not have to make these time-consuming reports. We could make all the decisions on our own.

— Whose equipment did you sell at Qualitron?

When we had already decided to buy all the shares, the management of Sony in Basingstoke came to Finland a few times, because they wanted us to be a Sony system company in Finland. We refused every time. We wanted to be free, to have the possibility to find the technically best solutions for our customers both in Finland and abroad. If we had become a Sony system company, we would have had to sell mainly Sony equipment and solutions. Their solutions were good, but not always the best. We wanted to be free from these kinds of obligations and always find the technically best solutions for our customers.

— When did you start moving towards an international market?

The first project we did in the USSR was in 1983. Like many good things, it happened by accident. The Protocol Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Soviet Union had a problem. They had arranged a press conference between Presidents Gorbachev and Reagan, but the technology in the room was too old-fashioned. So, they contacted several companies including Sony to renew this technology. Sony in Japan decided that they were too far away from Moscow, so they could not handle this kind of thing at such a distance. They tried finding the nearest Sony distributor to Moscow and found Helectron. They contacted us asking if we would be interested. We upgraded the technology for Gorbachev and Reagan’s press conference. This was our first experience working with Moscow. Personally, I was interested in this market area.

— Did you have an opportunity to work with other countries?

Yes, ex-Soviet Union countries. Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Georgia… but no other countries.

Why did you not expand into other countries?

Our neighboring countries already had companies like Qualitron. It would have been very difficult for us to compete with local companies, especially at that time. The distribution contracts were very closed, and it would have been impossible for us to sell Sony or Grass Valley equipment in Norway or Sweden — they had their own companies there. This is one reason why we decided to come to Russia. We did not start our business there ourselves, we started through Japanese trading houses. They already had connections and customers but needed technical background to make turnkey system proposals for their customers. This is why we worked together in the beginning.

— What were the most important and interesting projects when you worked in the USSR?

We did a project at the Bioorganic Chemistry Institute. They had two very big auditoriums, and we had to equip those. They also had a small production crew, which needed tools. There were not that many projects during the Soviet times after this. We did a project for the Komsomol, but we did not do installations and only delivered the equipment. The project for the Foreign Ministry was also interesting. Another interesting project was with the Kremlin in 1997-8. We did this for the first time during Yeltsin, and then we renewed it during Medvedev’s presidency — we upgraded the TV studio to HD. This is the most interesting and important project that we have ever done in Russia.

Tapani Karjalainen: We upgraded the technology for Gorbachev and Reagan’s press conference

— Did you consider uniting with or acquiring a Russian company to increase business?

There were some ideas, even some discussions, but nothing happened. I don’t remember why, but we never bought a company, nor were we bought by any Russian companies.

— Why did you leave the company, and why did it close?

At first, I felt that I had already worked for this company for a long time. Also bearing in mind my age, I came to the conclusion that it was better to make room for the younger generation. Otherwise, I would have prevented new ideas. There were of course also some personal reasons. Because of this, I decided to leave and retire. The company closed five years after I left. The reason why the business went down is difficult for me to pinpoint because I did not follow their business closely after I had left.

— Did you sell your shares when you left your company?

No, I kept my shares.

— What did you do after you left the company and retired?

When one of my friends heard about my retirement, he called me immediately and asked me to join the board of directors of his Finnish telecommunications company Orbis. He had already proposed this to me before, but I said I didn’t have the time. So, I joined the board of directors. I was there for seven years, I stopped two years ago. It was not as time consuming as a full-time job, but it was interesting. They wanted my help opening a daughter company in Moscow, which we ended up doing. They wanted to use my experience.

— Can you tell us a bit about your family?

We have one son and one daughter. My daughter is 40 years old now. Both of them have their own families already. I have two grandchildren, they are almost grown up themselves! My grandson got his driver’s license a couple of weeks ago. Life is going very quickly.

Tapani Karjalainen: We upgraded the technology for Gorbachev and Reagan’s press conference

— What have you been doing since you stopped working?

I have continued my hobbies, for example, I like fishing. I also started a musical hobby — I play guitar. So music, fishing, gardening, and constructions/ reconstructions are my hobbies now.

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