Petter the great - Scandinavian Traveler, April 2018
His name is Norwegian for the great valley and as one of Scandinavia’s leading entrepreneurs, Petter Stordalen has certainly done right by it. We spent a day at our guest editor’s heels and found out that at 55, he’s increasingly interested in the legacy he will leave.
“He’s the best thing I’ve ever gotten from Sweden.”
Petter Stordalen pets his dog, the German Shepherd Öbbe, and orders him to sit down a few meters away. “I don’t want to teach him to say hello to everyone we meet,” he explains.
Given the intensity of his schedule today, it’s probably a wise choice. But Öbbe isn’t happy and soon gets up to take a seat closer to his master.
The Norwegian hotelier, art collector and philanthropist has just landed in Stockholm for a full day of meetings. But his morning started much earlier, when the two of them – Stordalen and Öbbe – got up to take a 4am bike ride near Stordalen’s home on the island of Bygdøy, near Oslo. It ended with a nasty fall.
“I’m riding fast, with music in my ears. I arrive at an icy forest path and notice, to my satisfaction, it’s gritted. I’m thinking, life is perfect! Oslo works! Just then I reach a curve and the gritter is suddenly there, blocking the road. I hit the brakes and fall flat on my butt. Öbbe follows and falls on top of me. So, that was a good morning,” he says. At least his sense of humor is still intact.
Before arriving in Stockholm, Stordalen has managed to attend a telephone conference and go through his businesses’ vital figures, something he does every morning at 6.15. After today’s four meetings, an appearance on Skavlan, Scandinavia’s premier talk show, awaits. Finally, he will fly to Malmö.
“A typical day in my life,” he says.
Stordalen is at Arlanda to hear an update on his latest construction venture, a 500-room Comfort Hotel right next to Terminal 5, slated for opening in 2020. Dressed in a long military coat and marching 10m ahead of everyone else on the building site, he looks like a general inspecting the battlefield. He gestures towards his other hotel here, the Clarion, and explains that he wants a covered walkway built between the two hotels.
“It may seem like a small detail, but it makes a big difference, especially on a day like this,” he says, gazing around the icy airport. Stockholm bathes in bleak winter sun, a fresh coat of snow has covered the ground and the mercury has dropped to -7°C.
Inside the construction barracks, hot coffee and Swedish cinnamon buns are served, while Comfort Hotel Senior VP Anna Spjuth and project manager Fredrik Palmgren present him with the latest drawings from the architectural office BAU. Despite being a budget hotel, the new Arlanda Comfort still aims to have smart interiors and services, such as breakfast bags small enough to take through security and an “easy working lounge,” a space with temporary work stations.
The idea behind the new hotel is simple. Most airports offer hotels for business travelers, but not especially for families or couples.
“How many people can you fit in an airplane? 480? 20 travel in first class and another 60 in business class. The rest have no accommodation option at the terminal, nothing that’s affordable but still high class. But the need is there,” he says.
Over the past two decades, Petter Stordalen has built Nordic Choice from a chain of eight hotels to today’s conglomerate comprising 190 in the Nordic countries and Baltics, employing 16,000 people. Over the same period, he has become a celebrity, not least thanks to the daredevil stunts he likes to pull when he wants his hotels to gain attention in the media. His hotel openings are legendary – when Clarion Arlanda opened here in 2013, he let a helicopter drop him on the roof and walked head first down the façade, thankfully attached by wires. He’s not Spiderman, after all.
The company has become Stordalen’s life’s work and his adventurous, engaging personality is reflected in its culture, as Anna Spjuth testifies when the two pose for photos on the snowy building site.
“The company culture is very warm and we have a lot of fun. He believes in us, and that makes us believe in ourselves,” she says.
“I never get stressed. It doesn’t help me.”
Petter Stordalen is late, but he’s not about to let that mess with his mojo. The ride to Stockholm takes 40 minutes – time he spends efficiently with the help of his communications manager, Kenneth Hultgren, riding shotgun and answering countless questions. Where is he staying tonight? What time is the Skavlan recording? Is there enough time to call a broker about the 10-year currency swap? Most people in Scandinavia know about Stordalen’s image as an eccentric, energetic billionaire. But who is the man behind the brand? Is he really this full-on all the time? So far, there’s nothing to suggest the contrary.
The talk show team calls for a research interview ahead of tonight’s show. To make things easier, Stordalen has given them access to his personality test. They are surprised by the results, which show that he likes to avoid conflict. How is that possible for a successful businessman? The hotelier says he’s known that about himself for a long time.
“I’m the kind of person who wants everyone to be satisfied. Everyone doesn’t have to agree, but they need to have the chance to speak their mind and feel included. That way everyone is on board when decisions are made. That’s why I work so well in Sweden.”
“You were Norway’s best strawberry salesman. Now, you are a Scandinavian hotel magnate.”
Alexa knows exactly who Petter Stordalen is. This “intelligent personal assistant,” a device developed by Amazon, has been hacked by the team at eBerry, Nordic Choice’s digital innovation start-up, to answer Stordalen’s questions. In the future, it may answer hotel guests’ most common questions instead, CEO Lisa Farrar says. She meets Stordalen at Hobo Hotel to take him through her team’s latest innovations.
Today, all brands need a story, and Stordalen has succeeded well in building his. Most people have heard how he was named Norway’s best strawberry salesman – but if you haven’t, let’s recap. When Petter Stordalen was 12 years old, his father, who owned a supermarket in their hometown of Porsgrunn, sent him to the market to sell strawberries. He didn’t sell many and complained that his father’s berries were smaller and greener than the other vendors’. His dad replied, “You have to sell the berries you have, because they are the only berries you can sell.” This lesson, dubbed the Strawberry Philosophy, became his metaphor for making the most out of what you have.
So far, the concept seems to be working. Nordic Choice is currently building another 600-room hotel at Copenhagen’s Kastrup Airport. Three more are in the pipeline in Oslo, one of them a boutique hotel in the iconic Norwegian American Line building from 1919, currently being renovated and due to open in 2019.
Some of them may feature the electric muscle stimulator, a new workout device the hotelier is about to test now. To everyone’s delight, he removes his shirt in the middle of the lobby – exposing a large strawberry, the logo of his company Strawberry Holding, tattooed on the right side of his torso. He puts on a workout top and starts training.
“Ouch, ouch! This hurts,” he moans and flashes his characteristic, broad smile to the onlookers.
Stordalen tests the gadgets with childlike joy. He doesn’t seem to know much about them himself – instead, it’s Farrar who explains what each of them is about.
“On a scale of 1 to 10, I’m at around 3–4. Lisa is at 9. But it’s not about me knowing this – it’s about Lisa knowing, and me understanding that it’s important,” he says and proceeds to test an augmented reality program on Farrar’s iPad. In it, you can study rooms and public areas in hotels before booking. Also on show is a pair of VR glasses. Through them, you can redecorate the rooms by changing the color of the wallpaper. EBerry is also looking into blockchain, a technology which may help the company win back the bookings of its own hotel rooms from aggregator giants like hotels.com and Expedia.
Not all of the gadgets and services eBerry develops will eventually reach the market. But that’s all part of the plan. In Strawberry Philosophy, mistakes play a central role.
“If your boss makes many mistakes, it’s okay to make a few yourself. I mean, I can’t even ride a bicycle,” he jokes, and adds, “When you enter a new area, you must accept that you will make mistakes. If you don’t, you probably haven’t gone far enough.”
“Petter took off his shirt? In our lobby?”
For a fraction of a second, Jennie Håkanson, the CEO of upscale hotel At Six, looks very worried – until she’s informed that the said incident happened at Hobo, the more relaxed of the two Stordalen ventures on Brunkebergstorg in central Stockholm. Both were opened a year ago, Hobo aimed at a hipster, bohemian audience and At Six for a more sophisticated, high-end profile. The complex is one of the largest in Scandinavia with a turnover of SKr500 million. With 14 different restaurants and bars, half of the sales come from food and beverage – highlighting the importance and potential in such facilities for successful hotels today.
“In the future, half of our guests won’t sleep in our hotels. They’ll just hang out in them,” Stordalen says, as he tucks into a vegetarian sandwich prepared by the chefs at Tak, his first stand-alone restaurant.
Tak, perched on the rooftop of At Six, is one of his most ambitious projects to date. In 2014, he beat 75 international operators to acquire the 30,000sq m site and develop what he calls “the most ambitious city planning project in Stockholm since the 1960s.” He’s keen to make a mark in the cities he’s active in, creating new hubs for interaction and creativity.
”Brunkebergstorg is definitely a city planning project. The square has gone from a den of prostitution and drug dealing to an area where people now sit down to work on their laptops and drink coffee,” he says.
Håkanson and her team, including acclaimed chef and Tak’s culinary leader Frida Ronge, fill him in on the next phase of the development. Spotify is setting up its headquarters in the building, and in May the roof will open with a new identity. There will be drinks and food, but also yoga, an outdoor cinema, live music and World Cup football on huge screens. The space will have a capacity for 3,000 people, Ronge says.
“It shouldn’t be impossible to have 5,000,” Stordalen interrupts.
Before moving on, he stages a typical Stordalen moment, jumping up on an icy concrete table on the terrace to pose for photos. Below him, Stockholm’s church towers, the City Hall and the Royal Castle are spread out at his feet.
Nordic Light Hotel
Hotel manager David Bergling stands on busy Vasagatan, dressed in a white nightgown. He knows that an unusual first impression is likely to get Stordalen’s seal of approval, which is why he’s chosen to pull the white, knee-length shirt made from the hotel’s discarded sheets, over his regular clothes.
In the car, Stordalen has just gotten a briefing on Bergling, whom he’s never met before. Before joining Nordic Choice in September, he worked with Ett Hem, Stockholm’s most hyped hotel in recent years.
“I only hire people who know more than me. I don’t care so much about their CV as their personality. Without passion you’ll never be good, however technically brilliant you may be.”
Bergling shows us around the rooms, with Stordalen nodding approvingly. When Nordic Light was opened 18 years ago it was one of the city’s hotspots, but over the years it has lost some of its luster. Now, Canadian architecture firms +Tongtong and Todd Saunders have been called in to redo the interiors, resulting in rooms clad in ash and furnished with Scandinavian classics from manufacturers such as Carl Hansen & Søn.
As we leave one of the suites, a voice pipes up.
“Petter! I want a hug!”
Cleaner Lorna Mantilla stands in the doorway of a hotel room wearing an apron and a big smile. Never one to say no to an embrace, Stordalen hugs his employee.
Mantilla is originally from the Philippines and has worked for the company for 17 years.
“We have 177 nationalities working at the company. We’re the hotel industry’s United Nations,” he says as he waves goodbye to her.
Since working as a strawberry salesman in the Porsgrunn market square, Stordalen has amassed a large fortune – Strawberry Holding’s net worth was recently estimated at SKr25.7 billion. As a successful entrepreneur, he’s unusual in that he has nothing against paying taxes. On the contrary, he’s full of praise for the Nordic welfare model.
“I want to exercise a new, more sustainable form of capitalism. One that takes responsibility. Nordic Choice should not exist solely for me, but also for the employees and society,” he says.
“It’s important to answer the questions that society is posing, for instance when it comes to the newly arrived refugees. It should not matter whether your name is Ali or Ola, if you’re from Småland or Thailand. The first step to integration is getting a job. Even if you’ve never had one and can’t speak the language, you can learn by working for us.”
Has he always felt this way?
“No, I’ve changed over the years. I’ve understood why all the Nordic countries are at the top of all the innovation rankings. Google ‘the world’s best countries’ and the five Nordic countries are always in the top ten. Most productive, highest GNP per capita, most developed democracy, least difference between rich and poor. We live in the best societies in the world, and that’s something I want to retain. It’s not politics. It’s common sense.”
His telephone rings. Seeing it’s his daughter he explains that he always takes his children’s calls and answers with an upbeat “Hi, Emilie!” She seems enthusiastic about something, and he advises her to pack warm clothes. It turns out that 25-year-old Emilie has just had lunch with American home queen Martha Stewart and gotten an invite to travel with her to Svalbard.
Stordalen speaks warmly of his daughter and the other children – Jakob, 23, and Henrik, 20, – who recently took over the ownership of Strawberry Holding.
He himself retains control of the company, but seems happy about knowing the next generation is ready to step in.
“I’m a 55-year-old white man. I don’t have revolutionary ideas anymore,” he says, when the phone rings again. This time, it’s his wife Gunhild – another person whose calls are never left unanswered.
“Is it Petter?”
Fredrik Skavlan is about to film a teaser for this week’s program in the light blue corridor of Sweden’s public service broadcaster SVT, when he hears a familiar voice. Stordalen emerges and the two famous Norwegians share a forceful hug worthy of their Viking ancestors.
The entrepreneur has swapped his businesslike suit from earlier today in favor of a pair of tight, black leather trousers, cowboy boots and a military jacket with golden embroidery. Swedish singer Tove Lo is the rock star on tonight’s show, but Stordalen’s outfit undeniably brings to mind a 1980s Michael Jackson.
Moments later, waiting for Skavlan’s cue, he takes a deep breath behind the studio entrance. His favorite song, Darius Rucker’s “Wagon Wheel,” flows from the loudspeakers backstage. The day is almost done – just a performance, in front of an audience of millions, remains. He shows no signs of fatigue, but as the hands of the studio clock creep closer to 8pm and the recording drags on, Kenneth Hultgren informs the crew that his boss is eager to get going as soon as possible.
“It’s been a long day,” he says.
When he’s finally allowed to leave, Stordalen gives everyone a hug and jumps in a waiting Mercedes which will whisk him off to the airport, a flight to Malmö and a bed in a Nordic Choice hotel.
Tomorrow’s another day – one that for Petter Stordalen and Öbbe, is likely to begin with a 4am bike ride.