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How working for the collective good helped bring a family closer together

Published 28 December 2022 in Magazine • 9 min read

The Ahlström family in Finland recognizes that commercial success depends not only on generating profit but also on making a positive global impact on the lives of others, write Malgorzata Smulowitz and Peter Vogel.

Maria Ahlström-Bondestam, a descendant of the Ahlström industrial dynasty, has always held a keen desire to contribute to society – even in small ways. Aged nine, she wrote a letter to Finland’s president asking him to repair a dangerous slide in a playground. To her family’s astonishment, she received a reply, and the slide was fixed.

Years later, these values would go on to shape how the 171-year-old family enterprise approaches philanthropy – in a way that not only inspires greater impact but builds a stronger family. That approach brings together the efforts of businesses, investments, and philanthropy by creating a “collective impact” strategy, an approach that other family businesses are now emulating.  

Those values have been inspired by her forebear Antti Ahlström, a 19th-century Finnish industrialist who founded the family enterprise in 1851, and his wife Eva – one of the first female industrial leaders in Finland. The business has its beginnings in the timber industry, but over much of the past two centuries it has evolved into a diversified conglomerate with interests in sectors such as forest products and industrial technology.

“Antti and Eva strongly believed in equal opportunities for girls and boys, and that the community their businesses resided in needed to be well taken care of to be prosperous. They felt that companies need functioning societies to be able to succeed,” said Ahlström-Bondestam.

Over the years, those values were crystallized in her when she married the business leader Sebastian Bondestam and had three children of her own.

“I lived in 10 countries on four continents during a 20-year period. During this time, I came to reflect on inequality and the injustices of the world and my role in society,” Ahlström-Bondestam explained. “Martin Luther King defined power as the possibility to effect change. I sincerely believe that it is time for all of us to activate our collective power to effect the changes we want to see in today’s world.”

This approach ultimately involved forging partnerships in 2020 between the 13 organizations within the Ahlström family network (including public and private companies and foundations) and UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund, in response to its COVID-19 appeal. It also involved  investing €240,000 ($247,000) to support vulnerable families in countries with weaker infrastructure, where the effects of the pandemic could cause devastating increases in child mortality and malnutrition.

“I felt there was so much inequality and injustice in the world. At the same time, I was born into an old industrial family that had the power to contribute to a solution. That’s when I reflected on the unique possibility to effect change while uniting the family around social issues.”
- Maria Ahlström-Bondestam

While the direct impact of COVID-19 on child mortality has been limited, the indirect effects have been severe. According to estimates from UNICEF, an additional 100 million children are living in “multidimensional poverty” – meaning they have no access to essential services – because of the pandemic while 60 million more are living in financial poverty. The pandemic also disrupted education and led to a considerable decline in the number of people accessing basic services such as primary health and nutrition care, clean water, child protection, and social services.

Partnering with UNICEF has been at the heart of the Ahlström family’s cohesive approach to giving, which was formulated in 2010 when Ahlström-Bondestam and 25 of her female cousins came together and created the Eva Ahlström Foundation, a humanitarian organization named after the family’s inspirational matriarch. The 25 cousins in the fifth generation reflected a recognition that commercial success depends not only on generating profits, but also on whether a business takes care of all its stakeholders, including employees from outside the family.  

“I felt that there was so much inequality and injustice in the world. At the same time, I was born into an old industrial family that had the power to contribute to the solution. That’s when I reflected on the unique possibility to effect change while uniting the family around social issues,” said Ahlström-Bondestam, the foundation’s Co-founder and Honorary Chair.  

At the core of this strategic approach to giving is the foundation’s historic collaboration with UNICEF, through which the Ahlström family achieves greater societal impact, particularly with regard to underprivileged women and children.

“After starting the foundation, we realized that we had a vision, energy, and a big heart – but a relatively modest budget and no real expertise in how to solve the world’s problems,” Ahlström-Bondestam explained. “We needed a global partner who had the expertise, the power, and the mandate to implement our vision.”

The family chose to partner with UNICEF because it has more than 75 years of experience, a network that spans the globe, and direct access to governments and local officials – key ingredients for generating societal change. “For us, it was a perfect match where we could bring different strengths to the partnership to fulfill a joint vision of a better world for children,” she said.

That involved teaming up in 2011 with UNICEF to support their project on Water, Sanitation and Hygiene, or WASH, in schools in India. That saw the family enterprise, through the Eva Ahlström Foundation, invest €200,000 to improve access to clean water, basic toilets, and good hygiene practices in Madhya Pradesh, India, a neighboring state to Gujarat where the Ahlstrom company had recently opened a plant in which it produces fiber composites.  

The success of the project, which reached 40,000 children, inspired the local state government of Madhya Pradesh to invest a further $102 million to scale up the results of the initial project. Through these funds, the pilot project reached 10 million children.

The impact exceeded Ahlström-Bondestam’s wildest expectations: “We were flabbergasted. We really didn’t think we could have such a big impact. The results filled us with hope for a better world, and with hope that, if there is a solution, things can get better if we just act, if we find new partnerships, if we collaborate.”

A thirst for knowledge: Ahlström Collective Impact has joined forces with UNICEF Finland with the aim of giving every child access to a good education and clean drinking water by 2030

The family’s partnership with UNICEF continues. Ahlström-Bondestam and her cousins became founding members of the UNICEF International Council, a community that includes representatives from the world’s leading business families and global influencers. They want to optimize their philanthropic investments for children by bringing together their funding, influence, and expertise. Ahlström-Bondestam serves as its inaugural chair. To date, the council has mobilized more than $420 million for children.

Yet this is not the only benefit to have been felt by the family. There has also been a marked increase in family cohesion as the foundation increased opportunities for the family’s 450 members, spanning seven generations, to work together on non-business issues.  

“The sensation and the feeling of creating something new from our joint heritage and values has been immensely important for our extended family; we have been able to include not only all generations, but also our in-laws, who have contributed greatly to the foundation’s work,” said Ahlström-Bondestam.

She is clear that keeping the family together has been an important part of the family enterprise’s longevity over the past 171 years, something that was reinforced by the foundation’s creation. 

The preservation of unity was evident in the family’s decision to delist Ahlstrom-Munksjö, which manufactures fiber-based materials, from Nasdaq Helsinki and Stockholm last year. Today, Ahlstrom-Munksjö operates under the business name Ahlstrom.

Family members recently had the option of exchanging their listed shares for shares in a non-listed investment company called Ahlström Invest B.V. Ninety-nine percent of the shares owned by the family were tendered. 

Nobody on the outside thought that would be possible or expected such family unity,said Peter Seligson, one of Ahlström-Bondestam’s cousins who is a member of the board of Ahlstrom and the inaugural Chair of the new A Ahlström Oy.The work that has been done around philanthropy has also actually united the family to act as one, also when it comes to these kinds of business decisions.”

The family has managed to stay together even as its business empire expanded. The group employs about 13,500 people in 33 countries and had net sales of €4.4bn in 2021.

Ahlström-Bondestam is clear that for the company to continue building on this momentum and ensure its long-term success, it must take good care of the communities in which it operates. Moreover, she believes that the challenges facing society are too complex for any one organization alone to solve.

“Already, before the pandemic, there was an annual lack of about $2.5 trillion [in developing countries] to reach the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. Now that figure is estimated to be even bigger. No single company or government has those resources – and money alone is not the solution,” she said.

Those goals are the 17 SDG targets agreed by world leaders in 2015 to address key challenges including poverty, inequality, and the climate crisis by 2030. They can only be realized with strong global partnerships and cooperation, built on shared principles and values. That belief led to the creation in 2020 of Ahlström Collective Impact, an initiative that brings together the family’s network of companies, foundations, employees, and shareholders under one umbrella in partnership with UNICEF Finland – a vehicle for collective giving.

The family is drawing on the strengths of each organization to super-charge its impact in society, particularly when it comes to providing quality education for all and achieving gender equality and women’s empowerment.

Ahlström-Bondestam said that, by working together, the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. “Ahlström Collective Impact is a vehicle that makes it possible for everyone in the Ahlström network to contribute towards solving some of the most pressing challenges facing our global society. The uniqueness lies in the power that comes from bringing all entities together under one umbrella and letting purpose and values be the guiding principles that unite the Ahlström network.” 

Bringing together the family enterprise united with this ambition is part of what Ahlström-Bondestam sees as a competitive advantage in today’s business environment. She says that, in a competitive labor market, many potential recruits want to join companies with a purpose. That gives the Ahlström family an edge when it comes to attracting and retaining talent.

“The collaboration gives member companies tools for internal and external branding, which is imperative in today’s competitive world when purpose is one of the top drivers for any talent looking for employment,” she explained.

Moreover, she says that a “collective impact” approach to giving is key to attracting investors, who are coming under greater regulatory and market pressure to demonstrate how their capital is making a positive social and environmental contribution.

In addition, Seligson is clear that corporate philanthropy is helping Ahlstrom to attract the attention of customers, in particular its campaign to raise awareness of fiber-based solutions as a renewable packaging option. This has helped the company woo corporate customers, who themselves are responding to their own consumers’ demands for eco-friendly products. “People want to engage with us. They want to co-develop new products that are not plastic based,” he said.  

While for most business customers price is still the key factor in their buying decision, Seligson is clear that, all else being equal, “they choose the brand or the business partner that has a slightly better image”.

Meanwhile, there has been a marked increase in cohesive giving in general. This is a trend which is also being driven by a desire to mitigate reputational risk, since philanthropy can sometimes be seen as a way for families to clean up their reputations or cover up wrongdoing.

Ahlström-Bondestam is clear that for any enterprising family trying to align and magnify impact, building a network and identifying issues that stakeholders are passionate about are two keys to success. “Identifying a common cause, key players, and the necessary resources, such as financial, skill and time needed, is essential. Based on that, you need to create a framework – in our case a foundation – guided by key principles, and to clearly state your mission and vision to drive impact,” she said.

Yet Ahlström-Bondestam is also clear that earnest statements of intent must be followed up with action. “The UN called this the decade for action, a decade for transformation, a decade for hope and for peace. And I personally believe that it all starts with us, with the individual. Agreements and declarations are just words on paper if we do not act to make these words a reality.”

Authors

Malgorzata Smulowitz

Malgorzata Smulowitz

Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Debiopharm Chair for Family Philanthropy at IMD

Malgorzata Smulowitz is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Debiopharm Chair for Family Philanthropy at IMD. She has published work on numerous topics including family philanthropy, cohesive giving, the use of blockchain in philanthropy, and impact data management. She holds a PhD in economics, management and organization from Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona.

Peter Voegel - IMD Professor

Peter Vogel

Professor of Family Business and Entrepreneurship at IMD

Peter Vogel is Professor of Family Business and Entrepreneurship, Director of the Global Family Business Center, and Debiopharm Chair for Family Philanthropy at IMD. He is Program Director of Leading the Family Business, Leading the Family Office, and Lean Entrepreneurship. Named in the Poets&Quants 2022 list of the best 40 MBA professors under the age of 40, Peter has been published in peer-reviewed academic journals and, has written a number of books, book chapters and scientific and practitioner-oriented reports.

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