Finland’s biggest company is a couple of nice guys.

(Pull Quote 1: “All of the main shops are owned by companies. It’s the way you can sell everything you distribute, whether it’s U.S. brands or local brands.”-Harri Puupponen)

(Pull Quote 2: “Finland’s scene is so strong right now, you can do your own thing and all be friends.”-Esa Hytönen)

Finland wasn’t really on the traditionally Ameri-centric skateboard radar until a young lad by the name of Arto Saari landed on the map with a serious bang in the late 90s.

And despite his success, little attention is paid to the company that launched him into the world of sponsored skateboarding-a Helsinki-based board company called Control, founded in 1994 and run out of Santaco Distribution, the nation’s biggest skateboard distributor.

The grassroots company is run by skaters Esa Hytönen, manager of sales and all other operations, and “Freeman,” the artist, the heart, and the creative director. And Control has gained a serious stronghold on the Finnish market, outselling major U.S. brands-in some cases five to one.

How is this possible, you might ask? Well for one, it seems the days of obscurity for regional brands just might be over. In other European countries regional brands have been writing their own success stories such as Blueprint in Britain, Cliché in France, and Hessenmob in Germany-all brands that are extremely competitive with, if not outselling, their American competition.

A major factor attributing to the disparity in board sales between U.S. and regional brands is price. In Finland, a Control pro model is sold on average for 59 euros, whereas a U.S. pro board ranges from 79 to 89 euros. “Control’s prices are cheaper, and the quality is the same,” says Hytönen. “The market in Finland is good-it’s still growing.”

But the company’s grassroots marketing and loyalty to its market can’t be ignored. In fact, Finland’s largest skate shop, Union Five (unionfive.fi), which is also owned by Santaco owner Huttunen, recently did an online spring consumer survey. According to the results, Control came in as the country’s number-one board brand and number-two clothing brand. A huge accomplishment, considering the country of approximately five-million-roughly the population of Los Angeles-boasts two other major distributors in addition to Santaco, Skateland and Universal, both based in Helsinki. It’s relevant to note that both Skateland and Universal also own skate shops. “All of the distributors own a shop,” says Harri Puupponen of Skateland, adding: “In Europe that’s the way to do it, and all of Europe is pretty much like that-all of the main shops are owned by companies. It’s the way you can sell everything you distribute, whether it’s U.S. brands or local brands.”

And judging by how comfortably the guys from Skateland, Santaco, and Universal drink beer together, the relationship between the three distributors is really good. “Finland’s scene is so strong right now, you can do your own thing and all be friends,” says Hytönen, adding that the relationships between the distributors are all of old friendships through skateboarding. “All of the distributors in Finland are old skaters and they still do it (skate),” he says.

You wouldn’t think that in a country such as Finland, where the sun doesn’t shine for virtually half the year, skateboarding would be so popular. Fortunately for the Helsinki’s skateboarders though, the municipal government is on their side. It has been employing many of the city’s skateboarders for over five years now to build and run public skateparks-under their own rules. To most American skateboarders, the idea is purely a fantasy, but in Helsinki, it’s a wonderful reality. The city boasts two indoor skateparks, one of them private. The city-owned Kontula skatepark-named after the area in which it’s located-is the bigger of the two and is run by four skateboarders who were hired by the city. It offers fr skateboard instruction for skateboarders under the age of eighteen and requires a fee of one euro for those over eighteen. There are also no helmet or safety-gear requirements in Finland’s parks. Freeman and Hytönen are quick to add that these pro-skateboard measures are exercised by the city of Helsinki, and that skateboard-related legislation, as in the U.S., varies from city to city. “It depends on the city, and how well they take care of the activities,” says Freeman, adding: “The majority of parks in Helsinki have come around in the past five years.”

But it doesn’t end there. Freeman explains that once the city of Helsinki noticed that its skateboarders liked to skate marble ledges and curbs, city officials built marble ledges specifically for the city’s skateboarders. “The city is putting them in places where people can skate and not disturb anyone,” explains Freeman. But he adds that the situation isn’t as flawless as it might seem: “People are going to think that Finland is perfect, but it’s not like that. At the same time they’re (the city of Helsinki) making a lot of places unskateable,” he says. “Last summer is when skate-stoppers first started getting used in Finland.”

What’s interesting is that it seems the local media, much like in Philadelphia since the demise of LOVE Park, has taken a keen interest in covering the concerns and quests of the city’s skateboarders. Samuli “Hessu” Heino Huttunen founded Control in 1994, backing it financially, and the original team featured Peke, Aki, Toma, Kivi, Hessu, and Hakki. In 1998, Hessu told the Helsingin Sanomat, Helsinki’s daily newspaper, that skateboarding is more than welcome at the Modern Art Museum in Helsinki, which features a lot of marble ledges and stairs. “He said this without having any permission from the museum,” explains Freeman, laughing. “So all the kids went there to skate, and the museum couldn’t do anything about it because it would affect their public image.”

It’s interesting to note that although the country boasts about fifteen outdoor skateparks, the vast majority of them are wood. Due to the long harsh winters and frozen ground for half the year, there’s only one concrete park in Finland, located in the city of Tampere. And Finland’s skateboarders seem content with the vast majority of park designs-especially considering most of the parks have been designed by 27-year-old Toma Stankevitz-a pro for Control. Stankevitz also designs all of the contest courses for Finland’s contests. However, Freeman and Hytönen are both quick to add that their team guys aren’t really contests skaters. “They’re better at making video parts,” says Hytönen.

Clearly the Helsinki skate scene is strong, indicated not only by the number of skateparks in town, but also by the fact the city has six skate shops: Union Five, Lamina, Ponkes, Micmac, Boardhouse, and Naomi-that all carry on average 80- to 90-percent skateboard-related products, although the disparity between hardgoods and softgoods in their inventory is roughly 30- to 70-percent.

Control’s Team

Freeman explains the company could probably be more commercial if they picked up some younger riders. “But that’s not what we want,” he says. “The main thing is to find guys that actually fit the team.”

“With these guys it’s so easy to go exactly where we want,” adds Hytönen. And clearly the brand’s marketability hasn’t been entirely inefficient considering they’re outselling every other brand, European and American, in Finland.

And according to Freeman, convention isn’t necessarily what’s dictating how to build their brand. “We’re trying to build our brand by not doing the obvious things,” he says, adding that Control’s popular board graphics aren’t limited by any boundaries. “Graphic-wise we’re freestyle, because there’s nothing that we have to do. We can pick whatever we want to use and just make it our style. That way we’re not going to run out of ideas,” he says.

Hytönen adds that the team is also involved in the brand’s art: “If the team says something, we’ll listen.”

“If you compare it to our sales, we spend a lot of money on the team,” adds Hytönen. “Particularly if you compare it to the U.S. brands, because while they might sell more worldwide, our team is the same size, and they get one euro per deck sold.”

We Got Beef

The team boasts some interesting sponsors. Namely, Nokia, a local bar named We Got Beef, and KOFF Beer, a Finnish beer company. “There’s a lot of sponsoring going on these days,” laughs Hytönen. “You can get a lot of good stuff, because they (outside companies) all want to be a part of the skate scene these days.”

The Right Path

“At the moment, we’re happy with the way it is,” says Hytönen. “The way it is right now will pay for what we’re doing. Europe is growing all the time, which is good, as we want to grow more in Europe.”

Adds Freeman, “It’s not even healthy for us to grow in Finland, because that’s flooding.”

Hytönen’s approach is simple yet devoted to his vision for the brand: “We want to be unique and be our own thing and not a mainstream skate label. Fortunately, in Finland I can even choose what shops I want to sell to. I don’t want certain shops to ruin our image. You can say that’s how we’re building our brand-by being really focused.”

un out of ideas,” he says.

Hytönen adds that the team is also involved in the brand’s art: “If the team says something, we’ll listen.”

“If you compare it to our sales, we spend a lot of money on the team,” adds Hytönen. “Particularly if you compare it to the U.S. brands, because while they might sell more worldwide, our team is the same size, and they get one euro per deck sold.”

We Got Beef

The team boasts some interesting sponsors. Namely, Nokia, a local bar named We Got Beef, and KOFF Beer, a Finnish beer company. “There’s a lot of sponsoring going on these days,” laughs Hytönen. “You can get a lot of good stuff, because they (outside companies) all want to be a part of the skate scene these days.”

The Right Path

“At the moment, we’re happy with the way it is,” says Hytönen. “The way it is right now will pay for what we’re doing. Europe is growing all the time, which is good, as we want to grow more in Europe.”

Adds Freeman, “It’s not even healthy for us to grow in Finland, because that’s flooding.”

Hytönen’s approach is simple yet devoted to his vision for the brand: “We want to be unique and be our own thing and not a mainstream skate label. Fortunately, in Finland I can even choose what shops I want to sell to. I don’t want certain shops to ruin our image. You can say that’s how we’re building our brand-by being really focused.”