Volume 12 Number 5
Incorrigibly Independent
01 October 1999

At 18, Paul Gundersen was risking his life for his country, Finland; at 55 he was haggling with bureaucrats behind the Iron Curtain. It was in Caux that he made the choices which formed his business philosophy, he tells Mary Lean.

Finnish businessman Paul Gundersen is an enthusiast--for his country, his beliefs, whatever project he's engaged in at the moment, and for life in general. Take a tour round his native Helsinki with him, or listen to his stories of conducting business behind the Iron Curtain, and you're left in no doubt about his love of people, places and their history.

Gundersen's autobiography, Incorrigibly independent*, has just appeared in English. It takes its name from an incident when as a young man an irate Englishman told him, 'You Finns are the world's biggest individualists!' Gundersen took this as a compliment. In his view, Finland's history demonstrates the advantages of stubbornness.

Finland lies in the eastern borderlands of Europe. It was part of Sweden and then Russia for over 700 years until 1917, when it declared independence. During World War II it fought both the Russians (standing alone in the Winter War of 1939-40 and as an ally of Germany in 1941-44) and the Germans (in 1944-45, after an armistice with the Russians). It emerged from the war with over a tenth of its territory ceded to the USSR, its statesmen condemned as 'war criminals' and with heavy war reparations to pay. Ironically the struggle to keep up with these payments kick-started its economy.

Gundersen was born less than four years after independence and his personal story mirrors that of his country. He grew up on accounts of his parents' hair-raising experiences during the post-independence civil war between pro-communist Reds and pro-Western democracy Whites. Gundersen fought in northern Finland during World War II and took to the streets to demonstrate in the precarious postwar years when his country nearly slipped into the hands of the USSR.

His mother, born Elina af Hällström, was the daughter of an aristocratic landowner and senator. She was a talented musician and committed Christian, who once outraged her local minister by suggesting that his congregation should pray for forgiveness for their critical attitudes to one another. When the family estate was attacked by Red Guards during the civil war, it was Elina's courage which saved her father's life.

Her faith was a powerful influence on Gundersen. 'She made it natural to pray,' he says. Early in the war Gundersen had to take command of his unit when his superior officer was killed at his side under heavy shelling in the forests of north-east Finland. 'I was totally inexperienced.' As he lay there, with people being hit on either side of him, he prayed 'as I had never prayed before'. Later he learned that an acquaintance of his mother's had woken up that night with the strong compulsion to pray for him.

In the summer of 1944, a crushed arm put an end to Gundersen's war. While he was recovering, Finland made peace with Russia and drove the Germans out of Finland. Gundersen's arm was in plaster for over two years. He built a ledge on it, to balance the bottles and test-tubes he used in his lab work as a chemistry student at the Technical University in Helsinki.

During his student years Gundersen began to make his mother's faith his own. He describes deciding to ask God to guide his life and his panic at what this might mean. 'I felt that my mind was divided and my prayer was hollow. In my despair I prayed: "God, help me to mean what I say!" Something happened. An inner calm filled me, and I knew I truly wanted to find God's way.' He helped to set up a Christian association in the University. But when the students asked their chaplain for advice on how to apply their faith in their business careers, his only suggestion was that they could take the collection at church on Sundays.

So Gundersen was impressed when he met two industrialists whose faith went rather further. Oscar Sumelius, Chairman of the Board of Kyro paper industries, and Heiki Herlin, President of the Kone group, had both been deeply influenced by the Oxford Group, MRA's precursor before the war. They believed that teamwork between labour and management depended on changes in people's attitudes--and that this was essential to Finland's survival at a time when the Soviet Union would seize on any disruption of reparations deliveries as an excuse to intervene. Their example inspired Gundersen to choose a job in industry rather than an academic career.

In 1950 Gundersen attended an industrial conference in Caux, where he encountered the challenge to 'start with himself' by putting right the things which burdened his conscience. He wrote to his younger brother Leif, who was prone to depression, and asked forgiveness for his indifference. The letter led to a reconciliation, and helped Leif to find new confidence--something which Paul could look back on when Leif died suddenly in 1953.

He also wrote to the president of his university to confess that he had cheated in an exam--a decision, he says, which helped him to stand up for honesty later in his career. 'The most important decisions of our business lives are the choices we make about our personal values,' he maintains. 'The things I learnt in Caux became the basis of my business philosophy.' He recalls an incident, some 30 years later, when his boss wanted him to lie in a set of negotiations. 'Don't worry,' he said. 'They all lie!' 'Yes,' replied Gundersen, 'and they all know it, so what do you think we'll achieve?'

Gundersen spent much of the 1950s and 1960s working full-time with MRA, mostly in the field of industrial relations. This work took him all over Europe and to North Africa and the United States, as well as home to Finland. In 1964 he married a Finnish colleague, Aino Poussa. Their daughter, Elina, now a musician, was born in 1967.

It was a crisis in MRA which led Gundersen back to his business career. In 1965 the sudden death of Peter Howard, the leader of MRA, left the movement in shock and disarray. In some parts of the world, including the US and Finland, youth campaigns were having considerable success; in others, there were fears that the message was being watered down in the interest of popular appeal. A schism began to open, and the Gundersens found themselves caught on the opposite side to many former colleagues in Europe. Finally, in 1971, Gundersen began to look for a job in industry.

He became a purchasing manager with a company in the Nokia group, a job which involved 100 days' travel a year in the developing world and in Eastern and Central Europe. The trips behind the Iron Curtain gave him an opportunity to meet a wide range of businessmen, artists and church people who were committed to democratic ideals and eager for contact with like-minded people from the West.

He also had to deal with the Communist Party bureaucrats. Once in East Germany he found himself confronted with a 'man with a stony face and a somewhat cynical smile' whom he could imagine in an SS uniform. After a frustrating exchange, Gundersen burst out, 'You can have a signature in the corner of every single page and as many stamps as you want. But if there is no trust between us, the whole pile of papers is not even worth the price of the raw paper.' It was like marriage, he went on: what was the point of a contract if one didn't stick to it?

Then he added, on impulse, 'When my wife and I got married we made the decision to have no secrets between us.' At this, the official sprang to life and asked Gundersen how his decision had worked out. Then he started talking about his problems at home. 'His arrogance was gone. I decided I would never again put a man or his nation into my box of prejudices.'

When in 1977 President Sadat of Egypt went to Jerusalem to meet Prime Minister Begin, Gundersen found himself thinking about the breach between his former colleagues in MRA. Shortly afterwards he had a narrow escape in a car accident in Poland and Aino survived an emergency operation for a life-threatening condition. They both felt they had been given their lives back. Gundersen realized that his Jerusalem was Stockholm, the home of a Swedish colleague who had taken the other side in the split in MRA. He went there, the relationship was healed and Gundersen 'watched with astonishment as the consequences spread like rings in the water'.

In January 1983, when Elina was 15, Aino was diagnosed with cancer. She lived for another two and a half years, to the astonishment of the doctors, who 14 months before her death had given her only three weeks to live. After she died, Gundersen found the notes she had made in times of quiet when she had tried to communicate with God. 'Her last months had become a quest into an inner world, which is as real as the outer one--how do you find an answer to your fears, what does God's calling mean when all external resources are exhausted, what is the place and use in society of a dying person?' He gathered her notes into a small book, Thankful at every turn, which was translated into six languages, including Russian.

Now aged 77, Paul Gundersen has retired from business and has been married for ten years to his second wife, Eva, a Norwegian artist. Together they are as active as ever organizing industrial seminars in Russia, eastern Europe and the Baltic states, and building links between Scandinavia and East Africa. After his experiences during the war, he particularly values his opportunities to work alongside Russians.

Looking back, he describes his life as a 'journey of discovery'. 'Everyone has a life task that is unique,' he says. 'No one else's efforts can replace it.'

*'Incorrigibly independent: a Finnish life', published by Caux Books, Switzerland, 1999, ISBN 2 88037-502-9. Available from Caux Books, CH 1824 Caux, Switzerland, price 29 Swiss francs or in the UK from 'For A Change' (ref: D and E Locke), Tirley Garth, Tarporley, Cheshire, CW6 0LZ, price £9.95 plus £1.05 postage
Mary Lean