Andrew Osborn

 

 

Chief Russia Correspondent

 

Deputy Bureau Chief Russia/CIS

 

Reuters

 

 

Villagers lock horns over 25m pound Nokia windfall.

The Observer, 19th November 2000 17:19

By Andrew Osborn Pukkila, Finland.

A BATCH of Nokia shares bequeathed to a tiny Finnish village has divided the local community, provoked an acrimonious legal battle and forced the locals to negotiate a moral maze from which they are just beginning to emerge. But a happy ending may at last be in sight.

In a yarn that would have Hollywood's finest reaching for their cheque books, an elderly Finnish man in the Sixties left his native village shares in a small company that produced rubber boots.

The company was Nokia - almost 40 years later it is the world's biggest manufacturer of mobile phones. The value of the shares has rock eted and they are now worth tens of millions of pounds.

But the 2,000 inhabitants of Pukkila, 60 miles north of Helsinki, cannot agree on how the windfall should be spent and have wasted years arguing among themselves.

In 1962 Onni Nurmi died, leaving the village 760 Nokia shares in his will. The legacy was then worth #10,000 and he left instructions that the shares should never be sold.

Instead he insisted that the annual dividends be spent on 'entertaining' the 25 or so elderly people in the village's modest yellow washboard nursing home.

The sluggish pace of life in Pukkila, where many of the locals work the land, continued uninterrupted for the next 30 years. But in the mid-Nineties Nokia's diversification into mobile phones turned it into a global colossus. Suddenly the dusty Nokia shares were worth serious money.

In 1997 the local council, anxious to protect its investment and all too aware of the extreme volatility of technology stocks, prepared to sell a third of the legacy, which at its peak last spring was worth some #35 million.

But not everyone was happy. Some villagers said Nurmi's last will and testament was not being respected. There were concerns that the council would spend the money on frivolous projects, including a swimming pool, leaving the village's old folk in the lurch.

Others cannily pointed out that they would not need to pay taxes for 12 years if the windfall was poured into the council's budget.

For a small hard core of residents, enough was enough and they launched legal action to stop the sale. The legal wrangling dragged on for three years and it was only in June that the case was wound up: the council won. Today things are calmer.

Juha Myyrylainen, Pukkila's council leader, sits in a modest office overlooking the old people's home, monitoring the rise and fall of Nokia shares on his PC.

Pukkila itself looks like any other Finnish village: low-slung red and white washboard houses with well-kept lawns are hemmed in by birch and pine tree forests and muddy fields.

Myyrylainen talks cautiously about how the village will spend its windfall, and he is adamant the money will still be targeted exclusively on the elderly. 'We can invest the profits, make other investments and use the money for all kinds of care for old people. We can even build a new old people's home.'

In the existing home, pensioners are grouped around a huge widescreen TV watching a soap opera. Each morning a nurse tells those who are interested how the shares are faring.

The home has long been the envy of old people for miles around and there is a long waiting list to get in. In the dining room a portrait of Onni Nurmi takes pride of place. Little is known about him, except that he worked in America where he made his fortune before coming home to die.

A foundation is now to be set up in his name to oversee the sale of his shares, which at today's market prices are worth around #25m. It will meet for the first time tomorrow and Myyrylainen is likely to sit on its board.

Residents are frustrated, he says, that the money has not been spent sooner. 'It does test the patience. It's been dragging on for too long and people want to see concrete results.'

Profits from the shares were first spent on small items such as magazines and theatre trips, but have now been ploughed into extra staff for the nursing home as well as a minibus, special beds and other equipment.

Myyrylainen says: 'The plan now is to build each and every one of the village's pensioners their own self-contained units in a new nursing home.'.