A management revamp at Nokia following a record loss has given 51-year old chief financial officer Rick Simonson a shot at becoming the first non-Finnish chief executive of the world's largest handset maker.
Simonson, Nokia's CFO since 2004, takes over control of the money-spinning phone making unit on November 1 following the firm's biggest reshuffle of its top jobs in six years.
If Simonson, an American former banker who holds a degree in mining engineering, can help turn around Nokia's flagging fortunes in the United States, he would be the strongest candidate to replace Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo, who has led the firm since 2006.
The cellphone industry is suffering as consumers rein in spending on new gadgets in the downturn and the more expensive end of the market faces increasingly stiff competition.
In the midst of a maturing cellphone market Nokia, which once made rubber boots and toilet paper, is trying to adapt once again by becoming a top vendor for Internet services in addition to leading the cellphone market.
The 'new Nokia' with services, computers and Internet needs to be closer to the U.S. than to Finland, said Gartner analyst Carolina Milanesi.
While CEO Kallasvuo has given no indication of being ready to step down, analysts and media have named two Finnish executives as other possible candidates for the top job -- Kai Oistamo, who leads the devices business unit, and Niklas Savander, the chief of the services business.
In addition to Simonson, who has worked for Barclays and Banc of America, Nokia last week installed two other Americans to lead units making smartphones.
THE U.S. ISSUE
When Kallasvuo took over as CEO he made one big promise -- to improve the firm's fortunes in the world's largest phone market, the United States.
Nokia once led the U.S. market, but its market share fell to just 7 percent in April-June, according to research firm Strategy Analytics -- halving since Kallasvuo, who used to run U.S. operations in late 1990s, took charge three years ago.
Nokia controls 38 percent of the global cellphone market, but is now barely visible in the country where half of its shareholders are based.
This has hurt Nokia's share price -- the stock is down 20 percent in 2009, compared with a DJ Stoxx European technology index .SX8P that has risen 23 percent over the same period despite Nokia share being its largest constituent.
Simonson told Reuters in a recent interview before his appointment that the U.S. market situation is putting pressure on management, with delivering tailored phones to operators on time being the major sticking point.
Nokia last week reported its worst-ever result, hit in part by weakness in its smartphone business.
The firm was late in responding to Apple's iconic iPhone, and is struggling to match Apple's popular online software store. It has also lagged RIM's Blackberry in tapping the corporate market.
Giving Americans strong decision-making power will help to better focus in one of the fastest growing markets for smartphones and an important market for traditional phones, said IDC analyst Francisco Jeronimo.
Renny Ponvert, chief executive of top leaders skills research firm Management CV Inc, said Nokia needs to focus increasingly on key software deals and partnerships that give it a platform-neutral software application suite that it can position as a foil for the Apple iPhone.
That should be a natural skill-fit for a former investment banker like Simonson and his financial expertise will help make sure the deals flow through to the company's income statement, he said.
Some market followers saw Simonson's appointment as a demotion, but the move follows very closely Kallasvuo's own path -- first as CFO, then as head of Nokia's mobile phones business.
Despite its troubles in smartphones, Nokia remains a formidable player in making cheaper models, able to squeeze more money out of each phone than its rivals thanks to its large market share and economies of scale.
Where a pessimist might see the reassignment as a demotion, the optimist might call this 'grooming' for Mr. Simonson in preparation for the succession, said analyst John Jackson from research firm CCS Insight.
Mobile Phones is the revenue engine for the company, and presumably a substantial source of funding for the fundamental transformation Nokia is undergoing.
Management CV's Ponvert praised Simonson's ability to control costs and improve margins during the downturn.
Simonson would likely be a far better fit than his legally-trained predecessor. Lawyers tend to make for poor performing CEOs, and Kallasvuo is no exception, he said.
(Reporting by Tarmo Virki; editing by John Stonestreet)