‘A child fell from heaven’, said the matron in the church bench.

The former Chancellor of Helsinki School of Economics Aatto Prihti could be seen as a gift from heaven, especially to the Finnish economy.
Aatto Prihti, Kauppakorkeakoulun entinen kansleri
Aatto Prihti toimi Helsingin kauppakorkeakoulun kanslerina vuodet 1995–2004.

Aatto Prihti was born in Sastamala’s Kiikka in 1939 as the first-born of the family. At the time of his birth, Aatto’s father was serving on the front in Salla. Aatto’s mother wanted to make sure that her husband knew about the son and sent him a letter saying that “a child is born”. She ended up sending three letters before Aatto’s farther managed to reply. When he did, he asked how many children there actually are, as each letter says that there is a new child. The wartime affected Aattos’s mother, so that she became timid and fearful. ‘Those personality traits also gripped me’ says Aatto. ‘Because of the war, mother was also over-caring about me’. 

A few childhood memories have remained permanently in Aatto's mind, and here is one of them.

‘When I was about three years old, my grandpa often took me to church with him. He was leading the hymns instead of the sacristan who was at war. Once during the ceremony, I climbed to the railing at the organ loft, and fell down. Luckily, there was a matron sitting in the church bench just below the organ loft, and I fell to her lap. ‘A child fell from heaven’ said the matron perplexed. Due to the incident, my grandpa had his first heart-attack, and the sermon was interrupted. No one was however worse off, fortunately. 

From elementary school to middle school

Aatto was bullied at elementary school. ‘The big boys crabbed my new cap and swam it in the river. I had to find detours for safer school trip. In those days, you did not talk about bullying at home. I was probably bullied, because I was small, and because it somehow showed in me that my mother was over-caring. When I started doing sports, the bullying stopped. My best sports were sprinting and jumping. Decathlon went well, too.’

Aatto’s mother used to read a lot to his son, and the boy new a lot. ‘However, I still could not read by 1st grade’s Christmas. No wonder, that my grades weren’t that good in the beginning. I even got a poor grade (6) for singing, but this was because of my unmusical teacher, who gave grades according to the number of verses one remembered from the hymn Enkeli taivaan. I should have remembered the seventh verse as well, but it just did not come to my mind at that moment.’ The rest of the years at the elementary school went then well.

After elementary school, Aatto’s parents thought that he would continue to host the family farm and start cultivating sugar beet among other things. ‘Well, it became nothing, and my mother and father sent me to middle school. They had found out that there is one in Lavia that lasts four years. Because the trip to school was so long, I stayed at a rental room with my schoolmates during the weekdays. If we were too loud, our land lady hurried us out of the house with a cutting knife in her hand.’

Graduating and studying at the School of Business

Aatto graduated from high school in 1960. He had no particular thoughts about what he would study. ‘I ended up studying history at the university of Turku. When I joined the army in the winter to perform my military service, my room mates who already studied at the School of Business (called at that time Helsinki School of Economics) asked me if I really was going to talk about old things to young people for the rest of my life. They also asked if I knew that one did not need Pro in Latin to get into School of Business and that the studies only lasted three years. So, I dropped out of history, and went to School of Business. I did not get in the first time, but the second time my points were enough. I had had time to get working experience during the year, from which I earned points. So, in 1963 I started studying at the School of Business.’

Aatto lived as a subtenant for three years in a small maid's room on Museokatu in the apartment of a distant relative professor. After starting his studies, he immediately joined KYL choir, which he enjoyed very much. He liked singing in a choir a lot but had to give it up because of fast pace of studying.

‘I studied business administration 1, which is equivalent to accounting and finance in today’s curriculum, and business administration 2, in which we focused on marketing, administration and leadership. I also took courses in statistics with professor Sakari Mattila whose lessons were very vague in the beginning. The purpose of being vague was to decrease the number of students participating the course. When he noticed that the number of students had deccreased to a manageable size, he said that now we can start the course. One of the courses that I took was chemistry and commodity theory, from which I remember the very helpful laboratory master. He helped us to get the chemical experiments done, which we did with occational flames and flashes. The course in commodity theory is memorable even in the sense that I met my then girlfriend and current wife Annikki during one of the classes.

Working in the corporate and academic world

Aatto Prihti’s career has been varied. His most significant positions are probably Sitra's General Counsel in 1997–2004 and Orion Group's President and CEO in 1991–1996, to both of which he was invited.

Professor Jaakko Honko also led him to pursue an academic career. ‘Postgraduate studies at that time, in the beginning of the 70s, were very unofficial at the School of Business. There was hardly any teaching or classes. This disorganization was due to the fact that business administration was a fairly young discipline then. In fact, Finland did not yet have a research tradition in business administration then, contrary to other fields of science.’

The topic of Aatto's dissertation in 1975 was Forecasting Bankruptcy from the Balance Sheet. The subject aroused a great deal of interest and he was asked by banks, insurance companies and all organizations involved in management training to give as many presentations on the subject as he could.

‘A particular benefit of my studies has been that I learned to read numbers. The numbers are “crushed” into small parts and some small part may be a weak signal or give confirmation of something new. Another benefit of the studies was to learn to lead by example. This was done for instance by Jaakko Honko and Martti Saario. In the future, people leadership skills will be important, as will be leading the future. Climate actions and technological development in particular pose challenges for future management. Students, teachers and colleagues, on the other hand, are good teachers in interpersonal skills.’

Professor Fedi Vaivio inspired Aatto to take the position as the director of Business Research Institute, and he served in that position from 1976 until 1980. Aatto worked as the Chancellor of the Helsinki School of Economics for nine years, i.e., from 1995 to 2004. Already before his chancellor years in 1980-1991, Aatto had worked as the acting professor for food economy at the University of Helsinki, Faculty of Agriculture and Forestry.

We chancellors strived for reforming universities

During Aato's chancellery, a major change was when professor appointments were transferred from the President to chancellors. There were altogether five of us chancellors, one in each of the following: Helsinki University, Turku and Tampere Universities. Åbo Akademi and Helsinki School of Economics/Business.

‘We chancellors cooperated a lot and took turns in hosting the joint avec meetings. We had a common aim at supporting and lobbying for research funding and the comprehensive reform of universities. Once I took guests to the library of the School of Business and its Helecon data center, whose information system and international network astonished the guests. The guests were particularly surprised by the large amount of external income.’

Handling and resolving various complaints kept chancellors fairly busy in those days. Some of the cases were, however, quite interesting.

’Once a complaint about a job proposal began as follows: Mr. Chancellor, if you do not accept my complaint, I will complain about you to the Chancellor of Justice, the Parliamentary Ombudsman and the European Court of Human Rights.’ Te Chancellor was not prosecuted, however, even though the appeal was not upheld at that time.

The Chancellor's duties included quite a lot of background advocacy. ‘The most amazing was the old tradition where the authors of the dissertation personally handed over their dissertation to the Chancellor. I always offered coffee and interviewed the researcher. In this way, I kept up to date with the content of even the most difficult studies.’

Family, friends, and hobbies are important

Music has always played an important role in Aatto's life. ‘If there is time, I may play electric organs, accordion or sing with a guitar. At Sitra’s event, they had hard time stopping me and CEO Kari Tolvanen performing together. The playful singing band Los Amigos has already reached the age of 25. In it, there are Chancellor Kari Raivio, President of the Supreme Administrative Court Pekka Hallberg and President Martti Ahtisaari, all emeritus now. The Bishop Eero Huovinen joined later. I both sang and accompanied us.’

Aatto and his wife Annikki enjoy going to concerts, other music events, theater, and exhibitions - when it is possible to do that again. They head to Vierumäki several times a year. Participating in grandchildren’s lives is also rewarding.

‘My life has been pretty busy, and I can thank Annikki for getting everything done. Splitting the household chores at home has not been in balance, but thanks to her, life in general has been. When I was ten, I was going to a summer camp in Partaharju, but could not, as I got sick. This summer, my granddaughter was confirmed there, and I finally got to see the place, 71 years later.’

The great Kauppis spirit has remained the same

Aatto Prihti says that the spirit of School of Business has been one big thing aligning his thinking and life. ‘My wife and I owe so much to the School of Business. As I mentioned before, we met there, and the spirit has remained in our lives for decades. Kauppis also provided us a model for running our own finances.’

Professor Martti Saario introduced the culture of giving to Aatto. ‘Martti said to me that, in the midst of a busy life, it is wise to do a little good. He was the auditor of Save the Children and took me as the second auditor. Each year he would donate his audit fee to this good-doing community, and I continued the same tradition.’

‘I have been involved in many foundations and funds deciding on grants and evaluating their performance. The most important have been Foundation for Economic Education, Jenny and Antti Wihuri Foundation, Paulo Foundation, and the New Day Fund. Over the decades, I was able to see how even a small grant can have a big impact on both the recipient and society. That is why it is nice to give your own little support to important things. My wife and I have wanted to support the School of Business and other purposes that are meaningful to us with small contributions.’

Congratulations to the 110-year-old School of Business

’My warmest congratulations to the School of Business and thank you for your wonderful work for Finland! I encourage you to continue to compete at the forefront of cutting-edge research and education. The trajectory from the 1960s to the present day has been huge. Leadership has evolved from cash management to future management and people management. There is still a lot of work to do in all areas. Extensive cooperation networks are essential. As such, Aalto University offers good opportunities for cooperation, but when it comes to managing people it would be good to network in the humanities and theological sciences due to the challenging nature of the matter.

’In our time, the School of Business was a place to quench the thirst for knowledge and professionalism. Now alumni cooperation gives us a diverse network where each person's special skills and competencies can contribute to each other, and to the School of Business and its current students as well. Our home base keeps us up to date with change and development and it is therefore a very important support to us. It would be good and mutually beneficial to continue developing cooperation between alumni and students' says Aatto. 

'We alumni are many, and with our own small contribution we can support the important task of the school towards a better future’, concludes Aatto.

Text (interview on 3rd of September, 2021): Terhi Ollikainen
Photo: Helena Salminen


Many of the Kauppis alumni and other people who have been involved with the School of Business have a lot of nice and interesting memories from Kauppis. We would love to hear more of them and share them on our website and social media channels.

More memories can be found with #kauppis110

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