Born into an entrepreneurial household in rural Iran in the 1960s, Siamäk Naghian was raised on the premise that hard work pays off and that everyone has their own part to play in the family business and in life.
The values ingrained in young Naghian have carried him when times have gotten tough. It may have been by some intangible design that he survived almost 18 months on the frontlines of the Iran-Iraq war, or perhaps it was just part of the great randomness of life.
What is most certain is that Naghian hasn’t counted on destiny or luck. Finding an alternative route to a degree amid the deterioration of academic freedom in 1980s Iran, pushing through courses in Finnish at Helsinki University of Technology while working odd jobs after moving to Finland in 1986 has been about determination founded on a set of lasting values.
As we age, experiences often test and develop our value systems, taking us through a lifetime of iterations between what we believe should be and what actually is. For Naghian, the road travelled has given an abundance of perspective as to his personal ambitions and societal views, which merge in his search for meaning and purpose today as the father of a child with special needs, a citizen and the CEO of the world’s most prestigious active studio speaker manufacturer, Genelec.
Naghian has always felt it imperative to give back to the society that gave him a chance. For the past 33 years, he has done that by working during his studies and having a successful career at Nokia and Genelec. Now he wants to tell his story, to inspire others to do as much as they can to choose their future.
What were the oddest jobs you worked during your studies at the Helsinki University of Technology?
I worked anywhere I could and whatever I could get my hands on. I made motor oil at an oil refinery in East Helsinki and washed a ton of sheets during 12-hour shifts as a cleaner at a hotel. I also completed a translator’s degree on top of everything else and worked as a translator. Little by little, my studies progressed, and I could start applying for jobs in my own area of expertise.
How did you pick up the language?
I started a Finnish language course when I arrived in Finland, and it was in fact very intensive in the beginning and was complemented by Finnish in my studies and at work. I remember that, for the entry exams, I was able to get the questions in English, but everything after that was in Finnish. I didn’t realise it at the time, but a professor of mine did me a huge favour by insisting, at the beginning of my studies, that I take a physics exam in Finnish.
Of course, the translator job also taught me a great deal, and it took me to a lot of places I wouldn’t normally go to and taught me about the Finnish society. I learnt about how the society functions and about the culture, which is an extremely important complement to language studies.
See, in my view, language is a door into whole new cultures and worlds. More generally, I think learning a language should be seen as an enabler instead of an obstacle.
Seems like you didn’t have that much free time beside your studies. What pushed you onwards?
I was very convinced that it was what I wanted to do. There was no alternative. I left Iran and was in Finland for a reason. I was totally focused on studying and getting a wage to live on. I didn’t really concentrate on much else. I wasn’t able to hang out at clubs on weekends; every markka I had was earned to let me focus on my dream of graduating with a degree.
Little things also mattered a lot: in fact I still reward myself with coffee and pulla [Finnish cinnamon bun], like I did after a successful exam back in the day.
When you started your master’s thesis research, you also went to work for Nokia and stumbled upon the heyday of the former mobile system and phone market leader. What did you work on and how did you experience the era at the company?
I got into the company in the beginning of the GSM boom in 1995 as an R&D method and tools engineer. The Finnish economy was going through a serious downturn and the Soviet Union had just disintegrated. Nokia was, at the time, all about fixed networks, but the mobile systems were already gaining ground which the company quickly took up in its strategy. Looking back, the shift happened at a very fast pace.
We felt like we were changing the world for the better. The whole team was in high spirits and I do think we made history back then in a way that is still visible globally.
How was the switch from Nokia and Espoo, in southern Finland, to Genelec and Iisalmi, in the east of the country?
After the turn of the century, sometime in 2003, I began to feel like I needed something else. I just didn’t feel quite as home as I used to anymore and was looking for something different.
My wife was originally from Savo [the Eastern Finnish region that includes the city of Iisalmi] and I had been visiting the region quite a lot with her. Brought up in the countryside myself, I always loved the peace and nature. I began to think about finding a job somewhere in Savo, and I stumbled upon Genelec, which was looking for an R&D director. I was pretty well set up at Nokia at the time, running a company-wide programme, but I didn’t think about it that much when I heard about the opportunity to move to Savo and apply for Genelec.
I didn’t have a financial interest, it was more a question of finding meaning in the job, but also in life more generally. If you spend your life doing something day to day, I believe it should be something that has meaning.
Where do your personal values emerge from?
Lately I’ve begun to decode and to reflect on the things that give me energy and motivate me. I believe that the way we are raised, where we grow up and how we carry the values ingrained in us through our experiences are central to the human experience. I grew up in an entrepreneurial family, where work and contributing to the society have always been valued and respected. Everyone had their roles in running the business.
It’s quite a paradox actually. No matter how dire the circumstances, you have to believe that if you do your very best, you can achieve great things. Determination, as in not giving up, courage to be oneself and hope are the cornerstones of my journey so far.
You have now lived in Finland for over 30 years. What is your take on the society here?
I’ve seen quite a many different ways that societies work and have come to appreciate, at a very deep and fundamental level, the Nordic welfare state model.
I went to this event a while ago where people, who are perhaps from a more local background, felt that the cold, high taxes and language are barriers to foreigners looking to move here. I look at it quite differently.
I know there are a lot of people who would happily pay high taxes in exchange for being able to send their kid to school for free in a safe environment. Or be offered almost free medical care in case of emergency. These are the obvious Finnish strengths I think some people miss when talking about the Finnish society, even though they’re straight under our noses.
What do you think are the most important things in the societal model?
Genuineness, equality, transparency, basic freedoms and rights, financial security, you name it. I’m not saying it’s a perfect model, but if you compare it to other societies globally, it’s a very rare thing. It’s a marginal model globally, unfortunately. The way you’re allowed to be yourself and empowered to provide for yourself is something that should, in my view, be scaled globally!
I’ve spent a majority of my life in Finland now. I had a chance to be a part of this society and have seen such beautiful things that have made me chew on my experiences on a deeper level. It has motivated me to give back to society.
I feel I’ve given back through my career work-wise but have also recently started to think I can give back by telling my story. I haven’t really talked about these things and certain experiences before, but I feel I’m in a place where I can start talking about them and spreading the broader perspective. Perhaps to inspire others to stop and ponder their life or the possibilities of this here societal model, compared to the alternatives.
How does your story and experiences influence your current job as the CEO of Genelec and your everyday life?
See, the thing is that Genelec didn’t find me. I found Genelec. Especially with regards to values. All of the above have been deeply ingrained into the company from the very beginning, in large part thanks to my late, very dear friend Ilpo Martikainen.
It’s a family company that has always cherished the arts, culture and family values. The more I spend time here, the more I grow fond of the company culture. I didn’t have to bring anything to the company, it was all here. The way I see it is I’ve found a lot of things that resonate with me. I feel I’m a part of something worth doing. I feel very deeply that I am at home.
So, how exactly does a company from a 20 000-person town stay ahead in global competition?
Genelec has always had to fight its way forward and persevere in the industry. The company’s main feats in its journey have been the focus on research and development, quality, boldness to be different and a societal responsibility to the community here. Today we make the best equipment in the world and our brand is one of the strongest there is.
It’s such an incredible achievement and it’s based on decades of commitment to the right things. What we do is not about the next two years, it’s about looking as far as the eye can see.
It sounds as if you take corporate social responsibility seriously.
Companies have an ever-increasing role in the societies of today. I admire the way Supercell and its founders carry their social responsibility; they’re very much true to where they come from.
Personally, I don’t have to think too much about why I should carry responsibility in the society I live in and which has given me possibilities. More generally, a functioning and fair society is imperative for people to flourish.
For a company to flourish, it should have an identity. Genelec has emerged, in such a foundational way, from this society and region. It calls for commitment from our side as well, for example when making decisions about where our manufacturing or R&D takes place. It’s a way of giving back to the community here in Iisalmi, as well as the Finnish society, which forms an essential foundation for the company’s identity.
Finland and Iisalmi have been a unique source of inspiration for all the innovations Genelec has brought to the global community and users over four decades. Therefore, it would be rather self-evident to ensure that such spark of inspiration and creativity will be kept flourishing also in the future. This is about global responsibility, too.
We hear you have also a passionate relation to music. What instrument do you play?
I play the saxophone, not as a professional though! I’ve been playing for around 30 years and try to find time every week to play a little. The sax is a bit of a jazzy instrument so that’s where I usually find myself.
It’s an important break for me. Without art and music, life would be soulless, I reckon.
Originally published in December 2019