Bright Ideas for Business
Walk into SOL City, headquarters of one of northern Europe’s most admired companies, and it feels like you’ve entered a business playground. Located in a renovated film studio in the heart of Helsinki, the office explodes with color, creativity, and chaos. The walls are bright red, white, and yellow; the employees wander the halls talking on portable phones (also yellow) and meet, when necessary, in “neighborhoods” with distinct personalities. One neighborhood has oddly shaped conference tables that can be pieced together like a jigsaw puzzle. Another resembles a tree house. The all-important training room looks more like a multicultural version of “Romper Room, ” with everything from overhead projectors and VCRs to chalkboards and window shades decorated with circus scenes.
It’s an environment tailor-made for software developers in Silicon Valley, creative types on Madison Avenue, or Hollywood screenwriters. But SOL does not compete in any of these glamorous businesses. In fact, it competes in one of the world’s least glamorous businesses — industrial cleaning. SOL is a high-energy, fast-paced, knowledge-driven company whose employees scrub hospital floors, sweep grocery aisles, and make hotel beds.
“Life is hard, work is hard, ” says Liisa Joronen, 52, SOL’s chairman and owner, “but in a service business, if you’re not happy with yourself, how can you make the customer happy?”
It’s a simple question — and answering it has created a wildly successful company. Joronen founded SOL Cleaning Service five years ago, when she carved the business out of a 150-year-old industrial empire owned by her family. The “new” operation opened its doors on January 1, 1992 with 2, 000 employees, 1, 500 customers, and revenues of $35 million. It now has 3, 500 employees, 3, 000 customers, and revenues of $60 million. In Finland, and increasingly across Europe, SOL isn’t just a company. It’s an icon of what it takes to win in the new world of business.
How does Joronen clean up in an industry notorious for low wages, high turnover, and lousy service? SOL’s competitive formula has five key ingredients.
Hard work has to be fun.
Few people dream about becoming a cleaner. But that doesn’t mean cleaners can’t find satisfaction in their work. The keys to satisfaction, Joronen believes, are fun and individual freedom. SOL’s culture is built relentlessly — almost excessively — around optimism and good cheer. Its cleaners wear red-and-yellow jumpsuits that reinforce the company’s upbeat image. SOL’s logo, a yellow happy face, is plastered on everything from her blazer to the company’s stationery to its most important budget reports.