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Our alumnus Kari Neilimo: Combination of theory and practice in economics has led to interesting positions throughout decades

Published on 23.1.2023
updated on 23.1.2023
Tampere University
Doctor of Economics Kari Neilimo is behind many significant reforms and turning points in both Tampere and Finland. A key factor in his versatile and successful career has been an in-depth understanding of business economics and management, and the public sector. His interest in these areas was piqued during his studies when he came to the then newly established Faculty of Economics and Administration at the University of Tampere. The faculty was bursting with exceptional excitement and dynamism.

The career of Doctor of Economics Kari Neilimo has included various phases from research to professorships, and from advisory and board member positions to entrepreneurship in strategic management and financial administration consulting. He has also significantly contributed to the rise and success of the S Group, a major customer-owned Finnish network of companies operating in retail and services. He held positions as the CEO of the SOK Corporation, Chairman of the Board and Chairman of the Administrative Board of SOK and the regional Pirkanmaan Osuuskauppa cooperative. He has also worked as the Chairman of the Board in Finland’s public service media company Yle. He has also received the high-ranking Finnish honorary title of ‘vuorineuvos’.

Neilimo has had warm relations with Tampere University ever since his student years. Over time, he has been the Chairman of the Board of the former University of Tampere, chaired the Strategic Steering Committee which oversaw the Tampere3 project preceding the establishment of the Tampere Universities community, served as a long-standing spokesperson and fundraiser for the university, and as a representative of the Tampere University Foundation.

Neilimo speaks warmly about all alumni’s active role and encourages everyone to contribute to promoting the university and educational affairs – in a way that best suits each.

Theory is best practice

Neilimo’s path towards business economics set off during his upper secondary school as he had summer jobs in various companies and became interested in issues that had to do with both economics and society. In 1965, after graduating from upper secondary school, he started studying at the then newly established Faculty of Economics and Administration at the University of Tampere. The studies combined perspectives from the public economy, business economics, public administration, and methodology, along with data processing, which was fairly new and pioneering at the time. Neilimo was also admitted to a business school but decided to come to Tampere due to the innovative and interesting subject combination the university offered.

“Our key professors were young and keen at the time, and I soon realised that there was a very dynamic spirit at our faculty. It was an inspiring study environment and a familial setting. The instruction was good, and it was given with a personal touch, and we were also able to study various subjects,” Neilimo reminisces.

The studies swept the young student along and Neilimo quickly completed his master’s degree at the end of 1969 – perhaps too quickly, he says with hindsight. However, he had also worked while studying and even enjoyed his share of student events and get-togethers. Business students’ own association Boomi was an important community for him, and today he is proudly one of the two honorary members of the association.

After completing his master’s degree, Neilimo continued his studies and defended his doctoral thesis in 1975. After that, he had a long academic career, including positions as a business economics professor at the University of Tampere, the University of Lapland, and Lappeenranta University of Technology. He has also been a visiting lecturer and professor in several universities abroad.

Despite his in-depth theoretic expertise and background, Neilimo ultimately finds himself to be practice oriented. Perhaps one of the keys to his success is that he has been able to combine both approaches in a natural way.

“One of the professors supervising my doctoral thesis was Chancellor Jaakko Honko from Helsinki School of Economics, an all-rounder whom I highly value. I think he said it aptly: theory is best practice. Later in my life, I have found this to be true.”

ABC and other success stories

Apart from his academic merits, Neilimo has kept himself busy with a mass of things in business life. One impressive and far-reaching phase of his career had to do with cooperative business, which he was asked to join in the 1980s. He was offered a seat on the Board of the regional Pirkanmaan Osuuskauppa cooperative, which he accepted, and which led him to a rather unexpected path.

In the following decades, Neilimo held a key role at the major Finnish retail and service corporation SOK, and its regional cooperative owners were steered from challenging conditions to a path of exceptional success. Neilimo became a board member in his local Pirkanmaan Osuuskauppa cooperative in 1988, and from 1991 onwards, he chaired the SOK supervisory board. In 2002, he became SOK’s Chief Executive Officer for five years.

“Originally, I was commissioned to reform the S Group’s management system – in collaboration with others, of course. The S Group we know today can, in fact, be traced back to the strategic group formed by SOK and the regional cooperatives through the management system renewal implemented back in the 1990s. Another significant reform during my time with the S Group was that we renewed the whole notion of a cooperative and created the modern customer ownership concept. Another decisive factor was that we founded the S-Bank and started paying a bonus for bank accounts,” Neilimo says.

SOK and the whole S Group were highly dynamic in those years, and the cooperative group gradually acquired, for example, the Spar, Esso, and Holiday Inn chains. Right before the turn of the millennium, a decision was made to establish a few service station store-type branches. The concept proved highly popular and led to the establishment of the nationwide ABC gas station chain. S-Bank was also founded, along with the fuel procurement company NEOT. The ownership of the Inex procurement company also transferred to S Group.

“I had the opportunity to work in interesting positions which also served as ringside seats to many different sectors, such as the hotel, restaurant, and service station businesses. I for one feel that, ultimately, trust played a key role in our success. The national SOK Corporation and the regional cooperatives had previously operated separately, lacked mutual trust, and did not approve of the division of roles and duties within the S Group. We were able to transform this mindset and spread the idea of collaboration and finding new strength in co-operation. On a personal level, I also feel that I am most of all a team leader. Our success was based on a joint effort,” Neilimo says.

Neilimo’s career also involves another important ‘ABC’ letter combination. Students have also come to know it in the General Executive MBA Programme, for example, which was co-created by Neilimo and Professor Juha Näsi and implemented by Tampere University. Neilimo has been both in charge of the programme and taught in it.

“I have summarised the key to success in corporate management in the letter combination of ‘ABC’. ‘A’ is for ’Academy’ and refers to theoretical knowledge. ‘B’ is for ’Business’, meaning expertise in one’s own industry. ‘C’ is for ‘Consulting’ and refers to the ability to make decisions. These aspects combined form a common thread in successful management,” Neilimo explains.

Neilimo finds the combination of education, research, and practical work to have served as a guiding light throughout his career. Even today, his days are spent in familiar duties: in various board roles in companies and associations, as a consultant in venture capital activities, and using his expertise for the benefit of the third sector.

“I still find Tampere University to be my dear alma mater, it is a strong feeling inside me. It has been great to be able to contribute to the university’s development, participate in fundraising and collect founding members for Tampere University Foundation from the networks I have accumulated along the way. I have had the opportunity to work with wonderful people in a good atmosphere at the university, while also reflecting on my own experiences in the business world. I think Tampere University is just great!,” Neilimo enthuses.



Who: Kari Neilimo

Education: Doctor of Economics

Work and positions of trust: Professor at three universities, CEO of SOK Corporation and Chairman of the Administrative Board of SOK Corporation and the regional Pirkanmaan Osuuskauppa cooperative.

University connections: Chairman of the Board of the former University of Tampere (2009–2012 and 2017–2018), Chairman of the Strategic Steering Committee which oversaw the Tampere3 project preceding the establishment of the Tampere Universities community, and a representative of Tampere University Foundation

Quote: “One can market the university even by simply telling other people about it – it matters greatly who speaks for the university. The same applies to marketing and fundraising: big streams grow from small deeds.”


Text: Tiina Leivo
Picture: Jonne Renvall

Here you can read other alumni stories