Mr. Saunders reviews in his Midtown office the article about Finland's hosting of the 1952 Olympic Summer Games in the Coca-Cola Overseas magazine.
Atlanta attorney John Saunders, honorary consul of Finland.
Atlanta attorney John Saunders, honorary consul of Finland.

John Saunders, Finland‘s honorary consul based in Atlanta, told Global Atlanta that even in recent years during his visits to Finland the talk after dinner with his Finnish business partners often turned to the Winter War.

No Finn has forgotten the bitter Winter War of 1939-40 which began with the Soviet invasion of Finland three months after the outbreak of World War II with three times as many soldiers as the Finns, 30 times as many aircraft and a hundred times as many tanks.

Instead of the rapid conquest that the Soviets expected they faced fierce resistance resulting in as many as a million casualties, Nikita Khrushchev, the former Soviet premier reportedly estimated, along with the loss of 1,000 aircraft, 2,300 tanks and armored cars and other war materials. In comparison, Finland’s losses reportedly were limited to 25,904 dead or missing and 43,557 wounded.

The Soviets did not take control of the entire country as some have claimed was its original intention. But the Finns’ resistance has for decades been a fervent source of national pride.

World War II cancelled Finland‘s plans to host the 1940 Summer Olympics, but following the war it was chosen as the host city for the 1952 Games over bids from Amsterdam, the Netherlands, and five American cities.

One key ingredient was missing, however, for a truly successful Olympic Games and that was none other than Coca-Cola, which the October 1952 issue of the company’s magazine, Coca-Cola Overseas, described as “the only carbonated beverage well-known and enjoyed by athletes, coaches and visitors from all over the world who congregated there for the games from July 19-Aug. 3.”

At the time Coke had not been regularly sold in the country and no bottler had been appointed. But with a masterstroke the company solved this glaring omission and revealed yet another canny example of how it came to be a global brand.

In 1952, the Finns memories of the Winter War would have been far fresher and Coca-Cola Export Corp. made the smart move of shipping 30,000 cases of Coke to Finland with 25,500 cases donated to the Disabled War Veterans Association, more commonly called the War Wounded Association.

The veterans association in turn was able to sell Cokes through many outlets near the Olympic Stadium in Helsinki including hotels, restaurants and temporary stands in parks. Even athletes from countries behind the Iron Curtain who had to stay in a sequestered camp where they were lodged away from the other athletes, were able to enjoy Cokes.

And the magazine article concludes that the “sale of ‘Coca-Cola’ during the 1952 Games at Helsinki, Finland, was a huge success.”

Following the games, however, Coke wanted its bottles, cases and coolers back, which were all duly returned. But the company forgot to request the two trucks which had delivered many of the Cokes, and the veterans association sold them for a sum that enabled them to acquire an office for their activities — yet another reason for their uninterrupted gratitude to the company.

The Finland book shelf in Mr. Saunder's Smith Gambrell office.
The Finland book shelf in Mr. Saunder’s Smith Gambrell office.

Mr. Saunders, who has served as Finland’s honorary consul since 1996, said that while Coca-Cola quite obviously is well-known throughout Finland, the city of Atlanta could not make a similar claim.

New York, Hollywood and Silicon Valley are all better known for the most part,” he said. “Finland even has an office in Silicon Valley,” marking its interest in the latest technologies and software.

With one major exception, he added – forestry. “Georgia is the leading pulpwood producing state; Alabama is second and Florida has many paper mills.”

Meanwhile, Finland is a leader in the manufacture of paper machines, chippers, debarkers and the other equipment that goes along with the industry, he added.

Since many of the Southeastern facilities had to be upgraded, Atlanta, Georgia and the Southeast became a magnet for Finnish paper making technology. According to the Georgia Department of Economic Development, Georgia has at least 35 Finnish facilities operating in the state, which employ more than 1,300 Georgians.

While all the companies are not related to the forestry industry, many are. The largest Finnish investment based on total employment, according to the department, is Kemira Oy with affiliates Kemira Chemical and Kemira Pulp and Paper Chemicals.

The relationship with Finland is not only one way.

While Finland ranks 49th among Georgia‘s importer nations, the state leads the U.S. in the export of all of the following to Finland: civilian aircraft engines and parts, kaolinic clays, tall oil (a mixture of mainly acidic compounds found, like turpentine, in pine trees and obtained as a by-product of the pulp and paper industry) and rubber tires.

The department also credits the state with having at least 16 Georgia-based companies having operations in Finland, including AGCO Corp., Alcon, CP Kelco, Georgia-Pacific, Novelis Inc., Recall Corp., United Parcel Service Inc. and UPS Supply Chain Solutions.

For his part, Mr. Saunders’ first professional tie to a Finnish company was with Nokia Corp., which started more than a century and a half ago as a pulp mill. At the time, however, Nokia had not entered the mobile phone business but was making control systems for paper mills.

His relationship with Finland and Finnish clients happened almost by chance, he said. “There was no grand strategy,” he added. “I was introduced to Nokia by a banker at the old C&S Bank who said that the company wanted to open an office and was looking for a lawyer.”

Having grown up in Druid Hills and graduating from Emory University School of Law, he could not foresee that he would be making well over 30 trips to Finland and become so well acquainted with it.

Fortunately for him, he said, “You can be at a crossroads in Lapland trying to find your way, and you’ll meet someone who speaks good English.”

It was a natural step for him to join the Finnish American Chamber of Commerce of the Southeast, of which he was president from 1989-1991 and currently serves as secretary and a director.

As his relationship grew, – he now represents at least 20 Finnish companies – he was appointed honorary consul in 1996, and recently bestowed the decoration of Knight, First Class, of the Order of the Lion of Finland, among the highest honors the government of Finland can bestow on a non-Finnish citizen. The recognition was presented by Ambassador Jukka Pietikainen, Finland’s consul general in New York, at a Finnish independence day celebration in Atlanta in December 2015.

As honorary consul, he has had to assist Finnish citizens in distress, handle travel concerns between Georgia and Finland, organize visit of Finnish politicians, businesspeople, academicians, artists, athletes and government officials, verify the identity of Finnish persons doing business in Georgia and assist Finnish companies with potential office locations and the sale of their products in the state.

Aside from the busy work, he told Global Atlanta that he has been able to develop meaningful relationships with a diversified group of Finns, including farsighted educators and thinkers such as Pasi Sahlberg, who have helped blaze the way for Finland’s world-class education system.

He also has been pleased to witness the growth of companies such as Nokia, and see the state continue to attract firms such as Oilon, a family-owned energy and environmental technology company that opened its headquarters in a 32,000 square-foot headquarters in Thomasville.

Meanwhile, he continues in his roles as head of one of the Atlanta-based law firm Smith, Gambrell & Russell LLP‘s corporate sections, a member of the firm’s investment management and investment advisory practice and the air transport industry group.

Mr. Saunders may be reached by email at