CCO Profile: Atte Palomäki, Wärtsilä

This is the latest in a series of posts featuring CCO stories, examining their priorities and challenges and sharing their experiences.

Wärtsilä has a nearly two-century heritage that its CCO, Atte Palomäki, describes as a “hallmark of Finnish business tradition.” 

Wärtsilä began in 1834 as a saw mill in a small village by the same name, in the easternmost part of Finland next to the Russian border. Over time it grew into a multinational conglomerate across sectors from metals to forestry to ship-building, and even consumer goods such as porcelain. In the 1990s, the company sold most of its businesses to focus on power technologies, building enormous engines to power big ships and power plants. In the years since, the company has expanded into offering a more integrated and connected ecosystem of technology and services for the maritime and energy industries. 

Like many CCOs, Atte began his career as a journalist. He made the switch to corporate work at age 40 because he thought it’d make him a better reporter, fully intending to return. In 2008, only a few years removed from his journalism career, he landed a job as the CCO at Wärtsilä and has been there since, through four different CEOs. 

When Atte arrived, Wärtsilä had already been pioneering environmental technologies. But its leadership recognized that growing climate risk would demand their acceleration. Because of the extensive lifespan of the equipment it manufactures, it has to be designed and built for an environmental and regulatory future that could be decades away. This long-term mindset is a key reason why the company has so aggressively invested in R&D related to alternative energy technologies. 

In 2015, the company’s transformation began as it so often does with a statement of purpose: “enabling sustainable societies through innovation in technology and services.” Atte was a central leader in first introducing the idea to the executive team, then developing it and immediately went to work on making it real for all of Wärtsilä’s stakeholders. 

A review of the brand was undertaken. The corporate logo was evolved only slightly to contemporize it, while the underlying visual identity was overhauled completely. The real heavy lifting was redefining the corporate identity and messaging. “The old brand was quite industrial, almost masculine,” Atte says. “We have these service engineers that go into extremely remote and difficult places around the world to solve really hard problems. That was the type of mentality that was strong at the time.” The current brand image is more environmentally and socially conscious, focused on innovation that advances societal interests, and clearly more data-driven. 

Following the new CEO joining in 2021, the company’s culture was also reformulated to be an engine of that purpose. The “Wärtsilä Way” connects the company strategy with two cultural pillars: transform, which relates to all the ways the company is evolving to advance sustainability; and perform, which describes a high-performing, results-oriented organization designed to maximize its impact and attract top talent. The new framework,  launched in the fall of 2021, consists of the purpose, a clear target position, strategic priorities, execution plans, values, and leadership principles. It tightly ties the day-to-day operations of the 17,000 employees to the long-term strategy. During the past year Atte and his team have collaborated with HR to educate and engage the global workforce around the changes. 

Though its products touch our lives every day, Wärtsilä is not a household name like its competitors, behemoths like ABB, GE and Siemens. Atte has used the new brand to position the company well with a younger generation of talent that views sustainability as a core value. For the company’s 185th birthday, his team found and told 185 employee stories illustrating the brand and purpose. This campaign was packaged to enable employees to share branded stories and content with their own networks, which doubles as an expression of pride and a brand-building activity. 

Atte describes the company’s sustainability approach as ”decarbonization” and “ecosystem thinking.” “It’s the whole value chain,” he says. “There’s only so much we can accomplish ourselves, so we need all the players to collaborate and work for these solutions together.” 

Establishing these partnerships is a critical effort as his team engages policymakers and regulators to better understand the challenges and all that is being done to address them. For this, the company has trained a selected group of “luminaries” to engage actively with key stakeholders by giving speeches and interviews to boost Wärtsilä’s thought leadership agenda. Atte himself is an active podcast host, aiming to go “Beyond Business,” while the positioning team puts together materials and campaigns on critical topics, such as the future of energy and carbon-free fuels.

When I asked what his priorities were for 2023, the refrain was familiar: build up the brand, activate the purpose, transform the culture, and do all three in real, tangible ways. His core KPI externally is “effective differentiation,” raising awareness of the brand and its distinctness compared to competitors. Internally they focus on employee commitment and alignment with company objectives. Individually, Atte describes his role as that of a strategic sensemaker, a sort of corporate radar. “There’s no one else really in the company who is looking at the big picture and making connections to the company from all the noise,” he adds. 

Atte has three adult children which leaves him more time with his wife and his hobbies, which include cross country skiing (which he describes as therapeutic). He also loves winter swimming — literally cutting a hole through the ice to swim in shockingly freezing water, which he finds to be an adrenaline rush. In a way, I thought these were telling — a CCO needs an outlet for self-care and reflection (the skiing) but also a reminder that sometimes you’re surrounded by intensely uncomfortable conditions. In either case, one must dig deep for the strength to keep moving forward.