Norway’s Coolest Philanthropist

A Conversation with Petter Stordalen

It’s not that I had expected a lofty, formal or self-absorbed interviewee on that October afternoon in Oslo, It’s just that nothing – not the summary research, nor the few existing filmed interviews – had prepared me for the leather-trouser/ t-shirt clad rocker with a twinkle in the eye, an expansive smile, and a face that registered a dozen of expressions each time he spoke.

B Beyond doesn’t do traditional interviews – we are rather known for conversations – and once we established this fact, he was in his element: fleeting between topics and delivering punch lines in a kind of impish, mischievous, utterly beguiling and totally inimitable style.

‘He moves a lot when he talks’, later observed Dag Knudsen, the photographer tasked with the shoot and boy, did he move! Illustrating major points of his story, or just emphasising something he felts strongly about, he punched the air with his fists and only sat still on special request.

His personal and corporate stories are intertwined and infused with drama aplenty, and would likely make a fine Hollywood movie some day.

He is already a hugely prominent individual throughout Scandinavia and is busy establishing a global presence as an environmentalist. So who is Petter Stordalen?

Humble beginnings and ‘The Strawberry Effect’

One of 4 children born to a Porsgrunn, Norway grocer, he says he was supposed to take over his father’s store (in the family for a third generation). The store was his life and he also loved selling on the local market. He made the local newspaper news when he was still in his teens – for being ‘the best strawberry seller in Norway’, an exaggeration, he says.

‘Why and how were you the best?’, I ask him.

‘I had the necessary energy and guts. But you also need to love what you do and I loved selling strawberries. If you love what you to do, you will achieve success, even if you fail from time to time – because success is built on a succession of failures.’

When he complained to his father about the quality of the strawberries, the advice, ‘sell the strawberries, they are the only ones you’ve got’ impressed itself on him sufficiently to become a guiding principle in life: make the best of what you have and don’t complain about what you don’t have.

‘That’, he says, ‘is how and why I became the youngest manager of the City Syd shopping centre in Trondheim.’

‘I took over Steen & Strøm (a historic department store in downtown Oslo, regarded Norway’s equivalent to Harrod’s in London) at 30 and got fired in 1996, having turned it into a huge success.’

Stordalen’s falling out with Stein Erik Hagen, the company’s largest shareholder at the time, is well documented. Stordalen was the CEO but, he says, Hagen didn’t like his strategy and probably didn’t like him either.

‘I felt it was my company, I had built it up, yet I left with nothing, but a few stock options.

‘Mike Tyson said one smart thing: Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.

‘At that time, in the summer of 1996, I was punched in the face – I was knocked down. I was sitting thinking, what do I do next? I’d been there, done that, it was time to try something different.

‘So, I thought, “hotels”. How much did I know about hotels? Nothing, nothing at all, but I love people and I love culture, and hotel business is about people, so it should be easy.

‘When people ask me what my motivation was, if I am honest, the only motivation in the summer of 96, was REVENGE! I wanted Revenge! I thought, “I’ll be back but with a brand new company.”

‘I had a little money from my severance pay and a few stock options that I sold. I took it all and put it into this hotel that had gone into bankruptcy, in a small town close to where I was born. I had been invited to this conference where everyone thought I was going to talk about shopping centres. Instead, I told them about this hotel and how I would build the biggest hotel company in Norway. When people started to laugh I said, ‘I will build the biggest one in Scandinavia’. I had to literally carry people out of the conference room, they were laughing so much. Then one guy asked me during the Q&A session: “Petter, how many hotels do you have?”

‘”ONE, I HAVE ONE! I bought it yesterday!” From then on, two months after I’d been fired, I added one hotel every second week and 50 employees every 15 days and built a hotel chain in less than 3 years. The secret? Energy, guts and enthusiasm!’

‘It can’t be just that’, I say.

‘Building a business is like mud wrestling in the street’, he says. ‘You have to fight and sometimes you have to fight rough. I don’t regret anything, though – I’d do it all over again.’

‘In 16 years I have leased, bought, sold and franchised everything from 5 star hotels to B&Bs. I like to own the big properties and lease the others. I also own the best spas in Norway.’

My Favourite Wife

You would expect this kind of rugged determination to transfer over to a man’s private life too and in this man’s case, you would be right on the money.

Stordalen was divorced, with three children and a committed bachelor when he set eyes upon Gunhild, his second wife, at a party in Southern Norway. The way he tells the story is mesmeric and I can well imagine how his style of wooing would have proved irresistible with just about any woman.

He had sworn his best friend to tell him off if he ever decided to marry again and even promised him the pick of his art collection – any work he chose if he took the plunge again.

‘So, I am at a party in the south of Norway, standing there, and suddenly I see this girl – tall, beautiful, blonde, in 16cm Louboutin heels – she is 175 without heels and I am 171 – and I thought, “she looks beautiful!”. We talked and later, I told my friend that she was special – she was different. The only problem was, she was in a relationship. I worked for two years just to get a first date. She thought I was just a rich playboy and she didn’t want to date me. But when her relationship ended I told her “you have to give me one chance, just one dinner”.’

Gunhild challenged him to a race. If he beat her running round a track, she would agree to a dinner – except Stordalen had a better prize in mind. He was going to the wedding of his best friend in Finland two weeks later and wanted her to go along with him as his ‘secret fiancee’.

She’d been running every day for the last 10 years, so she was confident enough to agree the terms.

Stordalen must have been pretty confident too, because he promptly called the mother of his soon to be married best friend and informed her he was engaged but this had to be a secret because of the media. The hostess not only insisted they come together, she said they had to sit next to each other at the reception, which was his game plan all along.

‘How did you know you’d win the race?’, I ask.

‘I didn’t know. She was fast and like a gazelle, but something in my head told me, “this is your chance”. I am not very competitive but I am a man, so at one turn I overtook her, shouting “what’s the matter, are you out of breath?” This seemed to zap her.

‘So we had dinner at my house. This was THE date of my life, so I had taken care of every detail: I’d checked and knew she liked sushi; I had flowers everywhere; a matching shirt; a table overlooking the fjords… She was coming up the stairs, oblivious of it all. She didn’t care. As far as she was concerned, it was to my disadvantage to have a big house with a big carbon footprint. Nor did she care about the art. We had some wine, we danced. I have this DJ friend who is the Norwegian Simon Cole, who had prepared different lists of music for the occasion. It was the seduction date of all times. She had to come with me to the wedding and the rest is history.’

Stordalen is both democratic and generous when it comes to his extended family. He has been taking a Mauritius vacation for 15 years to which he invites not only his ex-wife and children but everybody’s current and former boyfriends/girlfriends – even his mothers in law – making it a party of some 40 people. Does he need fine diplomacy to manage them? It’s not quite Gaza, he tells me with a twinkle in the eye, they all get on fine.

The Art Dimension

Petter Stordalen is different from all art collectors I have ever met for one simple reason: he does not call himself an art collector in spite of the considerable collection he has built over time.

When I ask why that is, he says that for starters, it sounds too pretentious (one thing you could never accuse Stordalen of is pretension). He also says that true collectors study their subject, whereas he collects with his heart. Many would prefer the latter definition for a true collector, but I let it pass because I want to hear how he started.

‘I started with buying boring art’, he says in his direct fashion, ‘Norwegian fjords, houses – just to decorate my house. Then, I decided, I am done. I took everything out, I redecorated and bought art with my soul and my heart. The first “real” work I bought was by the American artist Ross Bleckner and this is still at my house. After that, I bought everything I liked. It didn’t need to be works by famous artists – just works that I wanted on my walls. I bought from galleries, through friends, on trips… I started to think about art in hotels. Most hotels acquire art that is meant to blend with the general colour scheme (I used to get requests from my team, asking “Peter, can you buy something in blue to match the cushions?”). For me that’s totally wrong.

‘One day I was at home and got a call from the manager of a new restaurant we had just opened. The restaurant was a huge success, so I was surprised that a customer had complained. I told the manager to deal with it. Why call me?

‘The manager said the customer was Sune Nordgren, the then head of the National Museum, who apparently said he could not eat at the restaurant because he couldn’t bear to look at the art. Given this was the most important art guy in Norway, I said, OK, I’ll take a meeting. ‘This is how our relationship began – I asked him there and then to source out works of art for me. He changed my views on art – he took me to NY and to Rome to meet artists. We went to some crazy places. In one gallery the only work of art was a large mud installation. Another art studio had nothing but candles in different colours. When you lit them and let them burn out, all the different colours would blend and you would get a unique palette. I thought, ‘are you kidding me, I could make this myself.

‘At some stage Sune left the National Gallery and I asked him if he would come and work as my art adviser. We started to select art for the hotels and we developed a strategy. The art would be provocative henceforth.

‘Do you see the installation of the 3 Somali sisters [editor’s note: restaurant of The Thief hotel]? It’s by the Norwegian artist Charlotte Thiis-Evensen. It depicts the girls deciding whether to wear the hijab or not – an important decision because whatever that decision may be, it has its consequences for life. I liked it from the start and if others find it too provocative, that’s their problem. After all, if you have an art hotel, it has to be something totally different, the art has to challenge the viewer, it has to stand out.

‘We had been looking at different locations for an art hotel and when we found this one for The Thief, I said forget all of your preconceptions about how a hotel should be decorated. I am a sponsor of the Oslo museum for contemporary art (the Astrup Fearnley Museum) which allows us access to the museum’s art library. I selected two pieces to loan from the museum: The Horse Thief by Richard Prince and the Anthony Gormley sculpture of a man bent over in prayer. It is important that people are able to see these works in public spaces other than museums.

‘We next decided to have unique art in every room and commissioned Sir Peter Blake to produce some work for the Oslo suite. We also have the Apparatjik Suite which is an art work in its entirety made by Apparatjik, an international group of artists and musicians, on a disco theme. We are constantly discussing more suites on different themes. The Thief redefined, in a way, hotel art or an art hotel.

‘I don’t want my art collection to be stored. I occasionally worry about people handling the works or even stealing them, but people don’t steal art – if they nick something, it would be a lamp or something like that.

‘What we now do is more directional. For example, we are planning to use Jaume Plensa’s head sculptures for all our hotels across Scandinavia so that you know immediately it’s one of my hotels when you see these giant headsoutside. I have one outside of my house – it’s a huge sitting Buddha that changes colours at night. I had some complaints from neighbours at first but when I told them it was Sune Nordgren who chose the work, they were fine. That’s the difference: if I say something is good, they’d think it’s typical, he is crazy – but if it’s Sune, they would respect his choice.

‘We also placed three huge Plensa sculptures in front of the Gothenburg Post hotel. They are sat on 12m poles and had it not been for Sune, who told the local government “Petter is thinking of donating this to the city”, the reaction might have been different. As it is, they are delighted.’

No Business on a Dead Planet

Petter Stordalen’s business card makes an interesting topic of conversation. First of all, there is the ‘crest’ which he designed to incorporate the key elements of his life: strawberry flowers, the words ‘we care’ in Norse, an image of his company’s headquarters, the company symbol and a picture of his dog. Under the crest are the words ‘No Business on a dead planet’.

He is quite possibly the most ethically-minded capitalist I have ever encountered, something that would have endeared him considerably to his second wife, a prominent environmental activist and spokesperson.

His take on the environment is so pragmatic, one wonders why it has not become mainstream argument.

‘Even if projections about global warming and natural disasters facing the planet are wrong or exaggerated’, he asks, ‘what do we have to lose by protecting the environment? We have everything to gain, in fact – cleaner air, cleaner water, healthier lifestyle… And if the prognosis should prove right, I worry about what I would tell my children when they are in their 40s and ask me, “what did YOU do to prevent this?”.’

I ask him if he’s read Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism Vs. the Climate, in which she argues that capitalism should take much of the blame for climate change.

Capitalists, he counters, might in fact be the solution to the challenges faced by the environment. Else, all you’ve got is the politicians who know what to do, but not how to implement it, because their major imperative is re-election.

Capitalists don’t have to think about being re-elected. Stordalen is big on responsible capitalism. He is well aware of the power of social media and the fact that businesses that do not adopt the model of sustainability are ultimately doomed. The same is true of behemoths that avoid paying taxes – consumers would punish them in the long run.

‘My biggest competitor’, he says, ‘ is a company registered in a tax haven. Why should they have a competitive edge because they avoid paying tax?’

He is equally scathing against financial instruments used purely for the purpose tax evasion schemes.

‘I want to pay tax. Everyone should because this is how roads, education and medical care are funded.

‘I am often asked, are you a socialist? Not at all, I am a capitalist. But if you don’t change, people and public opinion would force you to change and that might not be good for you.

‘I want to work hard and help preserve the social democratic system that we have in Norway.’

When I ask him about his extensive philanthropy efforts, he talks about his wife of whom he is inordinately proud – with good reason.

Gunhild Stordalen is the initiator and driving force behind a new global initiative EAT , and a multistakeholder platform EAT Stockholm Food Forum, earlier this year, which focused on food, health and sustainability, with debates and discussions between opinion and policy makers, researchers and industry. Petter Stordalen credits her with being a catalyst for change, able to conjure up the participation of Prince Charles, Bill Clinton, Hans Rosling and the Crown Princess of Norway, among many others.

‘I know nothing about philanthropy’, he says, ‘I am just trying to do something, to make a difference.’

That, of course, is what philanthropy is all about and his personal record on that score is nothing short of impressive.

As the conversation comes to an abrupt end – he is expected elsewhere – I can’t help but thinking, thank God for people like Stordalen. One of the true life enhancers, he makes the world that much more colourful and exciting, even if the rest of us are only seated on the spectators’ bench.