A career full of highlights

Neste Oyj’s President and CEO Matti Lievonen is retiring on October 2018, but he has no intention of resting. In the future, he will share his expertise for example as the Chairman of the Board of Fortum and in various other Board positions, and also from time to time as a visiting lecturer. Lievonen’s career includes numerous highlights and pivotal experiences. One of them was obtaining an EMBA degree.

Joanna Sinclair, 07.09.2018

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The births of my children are of course the first thing that come to mind when thinking about highlights of my life so far, the father of four says. "But my career has also included many experiences for which I am very grateful.

Lievonen and his family spent nearly 13 years in France during two separate periods. These years were especially memorable to Lievonen.

For me, international trade, learning new cultures and working with different kind of people are the spice of life.”

“For me, international trade, learning new cultures and working with different kind of people are the spice of life. I also got my EMBA degree while I was in France. I flew over to Finland during weekends and studied at night. It was tough, but I was young and full of energy,” says Lievonen with a smile.

“If you wish to be a good general leader, you must have information and understanding from all areas of business. You can gain this experience at work, but studying and self-development are a faster route. I am very pleased I decided to get the EMBA. The studies have helped me a great deal both in life and as a leader,” Lievonen remarks.

The EMBA led to leadership

Lievonen has a B.Sc. in engineering. During his first years in France he worked as a technical manager at UPM-Kymmene Oyj. After one year in France he decided to speak only French, which enhanced understanding and adopting the French culture also in his family life.

“I enjoyed my work, but I wanted to work as a leader, in a positions where I could interact more with people. But they won’t have you as a leader unless you have perspective and experience,” Lievonen says and laughs.

I wanted to work as a leader, in a positions where I could interact more with people.”

“Hence I decided to obtain an EMBA degree alongside work at the Helsinki University of Technology. Nowadays the degree is called the Aalto Executive MBA. I count the EMBA studies as one of the highlights of my career. I have very fond memories of the studies. We had a very good and heterogenic group,” Lievonen describes.

During his EMBA studies Lievonen says he learned to perceive the world in a new way. He learned to understand strategy and financial figures, and how to set goals, and take things forward. Soon after he finished his studies he was invited to be the leader of Specialty Papers SBU in Kaipola, Finland.

In his new job Lievonen was able to utilize the skills he learned during the EMBA into use on a broad scale. He took strategy to a new level and was soon known as a jovial leader who got great results.

“With 30% of the production capacity we made 70% of the entire Division’s results. That was a highlight of my career, as well. I have always believed that you need to achieve results through people. I aim to build an organization and culture where people can perform well. It has always been my principle. The best thing as a leader is being able to build an organization where people want to work and achieve results that make them proud,” Lievonen ponders.

Green, responsible Neste

After a few years in Kaipola, Lievonen and his family went back to France, where he worked for UPM-Kymmene as a leader for a bit over six years. After France, he returned to Finland and worked in leadership positions for UPM for another six years. Lievonen says he enjoyed his work a great deal. When a headhunter contacted Lievonen to persuade him to become the CEO of Neste, Lievonen’s first response was an adamant no.

“I said I wanted to work in international business, and Neste at the time did not sound like that kind of a job. The headhunter convinced me that the work would be not only highly interesting, but international as well. And as CEO, you can take your own views forward, so in the end I decided to say yes,” Lievonen reminisces.

Leaders must be interested and enthusiastic. It is hard to emphasize the importance of education too much.”

Lievonen has been Neste’s CEO for ten years. During this time Neste has grown into a leading, global company known for its sustainability and renewable energy.

“At Neste we have achieved things that I consider the greatest highlights of my life so far – in addition to my family. Our culture has changed, and we are now outward-looking and customer centric. Neste’s market value is 8-9 times better than when I first came to work here. We have achieved a great deal of good work and I am leaving my position to my successor in good spirits,” says Lievonen.

“It was not that many years ago that we had Greenpeace banners hanging at our headquarters. We wanted to change all that and solve global problems. We wanted to be part of the solution, not the problem. We started determined work to achieve this goal. We changed the way we think and our culture, we invested in research, our brand and sustainability, and we started visibly taking part in social debate,” Lievonen explains.

The work paid off. In 2018 Neste was ranked as the world’s 2nd most sustainable company on the Global 100 list and the world’s best performing company within the energy industry. The company’s most recent personnel survey showed that 85% of employees understand the company strategy and 97% believe that Neste has an excellent future ahead of it.

Substantial investments into development

Lievonen underlines that creating the right kind of culture is a leader’s most important job. Organizations that employ people who want to invent and develop and take the world forward are always the most successful ones. In organizations like this, leaders must be brave enough to invest and also set their sights beyond the Finnish borders.

“Last year we decreased carbon dioxide emissions by over 8 million metric tons. It’s the equivalent of the emissions of 3 million cars. You can reach numbers like this only if you bravely invest into continuous development. At Neste we have a total of 5000 professionals, of which 1400 are engineers or in research and development work,” he lists.

Creating the right kind of culture is a leader’s most important job.”

“Our employees are proud of what they do. We have a very low hierarchy and extremely talented people here. Now that we are a global company, we have also been able to hire immensely skilled professionals from around the world,” Lievonen comments.

In an organization like this, self-development and continuous learning are highly important – for all employees and at every stage of their careers. According to Lievonen, continuous learning is pivotal for Board Members, not to mentions managers.

“Leaders must be interested and enthusiastic. It is hard to emphasize the importance of education too much. At Neste we have training programs running all the time for top management and potentials alike. We collaborate with leading educational institutes such as Aalto EE. You learn something new every day, and that is a great thing,” Lievonen concludes.

Lievonen was granted the honorary title “Vuorineuvos” in 2013. In 2016 Aalto University awarded him an Honorary Doctorate in Technology. This story is part of Aalto EMBA 30 years series. You can find the other stories of the series below. Read more about Aalto Executive MBA.

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