Do I know you?
Originally from China, Alexander Yin has steadily built a career in finance in Finland, pioneering solutions that have caught the attention and collaboration of Alibaba and Finnair along the way.
The words ‘quiet’ and ‘peaceful’ are synonymous with Finland. Yet, when Alexander Yin first visited the city of Turku in 2007, the streets of the former Finnish capital were practically empty. Nonetheless, Yin was undeterred by the lull between Christmas and New Year, and went on to commence a PhD in computer engineering in the city.
With a focused work ethic he honed whilst growing up in China, Yin barely noticed the cold, dark and quiet residing outside. His second year in Finland brought with it an additional MBA to his growing workload. By the third year, an internship at the budding devops startup Eficode was also in the mix, along with his first child and his first house.
Fast-forward a decade and Yin is the CFO of both Eficode and its sister company, ePassi. The two companies have grown from having 30 to more than 300 people on the payroll. This year’s forecast is more than 100 million euros in revenue.
In the midst of all this growth, Yin has been a constant, despite not knowing a word of Finnish – well, with the exception of three very important words.
Looking back, what was the experience like starting an internship at Eficode, with your Chinese background?
The working culture here was much less crowded. I usually say that I am from a medium-sized city in China – only 10 million people.
So, a little village then!
Yeah. [laughs] One thing that I love very much about the Finnish working culture is we really appreciate people’s family life. In Asian cultures, people just live for work. Here, even though I am an executive in the company, I always get to go home and spend a couple of hours with my kids before they go to sleep. It’s a very good part of working and living here.
What do your friends in China think about this?
They admire it very much. A friend of mine there gave birth to her son and, afterwards, was replying to work emails while still in hospital. That was extreme. I do like to spend some time with my family. When I work, I work extremely hard, but when I am with my family I ensure we have quality time together.
Another thing I like here, especially in our companies, is that there is no glass ceiling for foreigners in this country. I have lived here for 12 years and I can’t speak Finnish. I know how to say en puhu suomea [I don’t speak Finnish]. I am not a local, but still I advanced from an internship to group CFO. It took me four years – a pretty fast speed. For a person to grow in their professional career in our company, we don’t emphasise where you are from; we emphasise who you are, what you are and what you can do. That’s a really good side of this business.
Have there been any obstacles not knowing Finnish?
No, everybody can speak English in this part of the world. Of course, if you go to France it may be slightly different. Last week when I was in Madrid, chatting with one of the execs from one of the largest banks there, she also pointed out that living in the Nordics as a non-local is actually a very good thing. People here can speak English very well.
What advice would you give to someone who is thinking about moving to Finland for work?
Firstly, if you feel that Finnish people are cold, don’t take them the wrong way. They may just be shy. The culture is different. It doesn’t mean that they won’t help you. They actually will help you very much. Many Finnish people don’t enjoy talking too much. If you meet Finnish people at an interview, there is no small talk. There is none of this culture here. Work hard and work smart. When people come to a new country, they have to understand how the culture and society function. Just contribute as much as you can. And, um, prepare for the winter!
Fortunately, now we are in the midst of better weather. What is the best way to spend a summer’s day in Finland?
The very beautiful thing is that July is the time for holidays here, and it is the only time you can expect some good weather. Sometimes in August, too. During the Finnish summer, I usually take a break, spend some time with my family. Mostly we stay here: go to the seaside and lakes and enjoy the nature. Here, it’s not like Tokyo or Shanghai, where you go to see tens of millions of people and skyscrapers everywhere. Here you can feel the nature and just go to the water and start swimming.
What about sauna?
I do it quite often and at home. Actually, I think sauna is great advice for those coming to work here: go to sauna with your colleagues. There is no small talk culture here, except in the sauna. There you get to know people more. Sometimes good ideas come from the sauna. We realised this and that’s why upstairs here at our office we have a private sauna. Just for our own people. We have it all the time over here. Especially on Friday afternoons, we grab some beers and have a sauna. We see this as a good way to build the team spirit. People have time to talk to one another without too many things in between.
What other aspects of Finnish culture do you like?
Finns are very straightforward. I like this very much. Especially when doing business. At first, it felt they were so straightforward that it was rude. If they didn’t like something, they just said it. But I quickly came to appreciate it. When doing business, one of the most valuable resources is time. If there is unlimited time, you can always do something great, but in business you don’t have this. This straightforward culture saves time for everybody. You don’t have to guess, like with some other cultures. Here people are so straightforward that if there is a possibility, you’ll know it. If not, you’ll know it too.
I have a good example of how straightforward Finnish people can be. A couple of years ago when ePassi started collaborating with Alipay, one evening I was lying down thinking about how I could do something disruptive in payments. I realised that Finnair has wi-fi onboard and we have a mobile payment system – no one has done mobile payment in the sky. I immediately jumped up and Googled around, but I didn’t find anything about mobile payments in aircraft. I called the Finnair CEO at the time, spent a few minutes talking about it and he said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it. Come and talk to me. Let’s have a longer discussion’. I met both the CEO and CCO, talked about topic for 15–20 minutes and both said yes. As simple as that.
The next week we had a feasibility meeting with all the people from their side – everyone from cabin crew, finance, marketing and PR. We realised that yes, it is feasible. This was November 2016. They asked me when do I think they can get this online. I said 28 January, the Chinese New Year, which would be great for PR. This was less than three months away, including Christmas and New Year. We ended up having it operational one day in advance, on 27 January. This just shows how efficient the Finnish business can be. Still today, it is the only mobile payment in the sky in the airline business globally.
Speaking of globally, we are starting Good News from Finland in Chinese later this year. What aspects of Finland would be interesting to the Chinese?
This country is very efficient. From a Chinese business point of view, I would say that we do not like to spend too much time going through all of the bureaucracies which happen in many countries. The whole process may take a huge amount of time.
Here, it is very nice. In order to move your office from one building to another, you don’t need to go to an authority, do paperwork and wait for three weeks, like I have experienced in other countries. Also, you can set up a business here in half an hour.
What sort of businesses here would Chinese readers be interested in?
ICT, of course, is one. My personal opinion is that the sophisticated machinery industry may also be very interesting for Chinese companies. Even though China has its our own industry and is growing fast as a country, we can’t grow perfectly in all areas.
I have also said to my business friends in China that Finland is a very good testbed for Chinese companies going to Europe. Firstly, this place is well connected to China. The connection is very good and short. The efficiency is one thing. When you want to test something, you want to test it in an efficient way – not spend half a year waiting to register a company. Also compared with other Nordic countries, which are efficient no matter where you are, Finland has the advantage of being the only Nordic country that has the euro. When you set up a place in Finland you are in the eurozone, and that is quite a good advantage.
Finally, do you have a favourite word/saying in Finnish, other than en puhu suomea?
[long pause] Actually, my favourite words are en puhu suomea. I have used them so often [laughs].