Earlier this year, our Country Manager in Finland, Sami Elopuro, was elected to the Finnish Sports Hall of Fame. For ten years, Sami was a professional squash player, representing Finland. I took the opportunity to interview Sami. I was curious about the history behind this humble star.
It all started when Sami once joined his parents to a squash court around the age of 13. His parents were, just like many others in Finland in the beginning of the 80s, playing as a hobby for fun. But Sami immediately got hooked.
“Starting with squash at the age of 13 was quite late and I actually never reached any success as a youth, wasn’t included in the youth team. My late start is also the reason why my career peaked at a quite high age compared with others”, says Sami.
Sami, born in 1964, had his peak between 1991 and 1996. During these years he was ranked in between 6 and 12th place in the world and in 1992 and 1993 he was no1 in Europe. With a good support from home and some great genes (a father that was good on any sport he tried) he managed to have a full-time career as a squash player for ten years. From 1986 to 1996 he trained 3 sessions a day 6 days a week, without getting injured.
Sami and his coach Hannu Mäkinen
Hard work leads to success
He started the day with 2 hours on court between 9-11. After being home for lunch and some rest it was time for 2 hours of game practice. Some more food and rest and then a night session with running, weightlifting or elastic training. People that only know Sami from work, sees him as a humble and calm leader but inside is a real fighter and a very competitive person.
“I was actually known among squash people all around the world as the guy who never got tired and never gave up. I could kill myself in training and on court. That is probably one of the reasons that I could reach nr 6 on world ranking list, which means you need to be really good and stay good for 12 months in a row.”
Another moment in his career that Sami remembers and hold high is when he reached the Tour final in the squash PSA tour (equivalent to tennis ATP) in India. The Best 8 players in the world with most points are included. To be able to have a full-time career in squash you not only need to work very closely with sponsors. During his career Sami negotiated contacts with sponsors and organized events in Finland as well as abroad. It taught him how to handle people, operating projects, and plan work.
Sami Elopuro against the number one player in the world, Pakistan's Jahangir Khan in October 1991 in Espoo.
Ending the career
One of Sami’s sponsors was a family-owned IT-company. When Sami told them it was time to end the career as a squash player, they instantly offered him a job.
“They had seen how I was as a businessman with all the job I hade been doing to be able to have my career, and perhaps they saw the possibility to turn my competitive instinct to business”.
Sami hates losing, whether it’s on court, at work or even playing with the kids. But as much as he hates losing, he loves winning and being part of a good team. He sees many similarities between the job as a professional squash player and the job as a leader at work.
Being a leader
Being a professional in sports you need to set up goals and keep the focus on your target. You can’t reach the goal directly without taking small steps on the way. And to succeed you need to be honest to yourself and the people around you. If you start lying to yourself or pretend you have done as hard as you could when you know you didn’t, you won’t succeed.
Sami has been a leader at Ingram Micro in Finland since 2015 and he appreciates being part of a Nordic and Global organization where he can be very operational. He is a hands-on person who likes to be involved. Still, he points out the importance of the employee’s taking responsibility for their own development.
“When I was on top of my career my coach didn’t do the training programs, I had to do it myself. Then we looked at them and maybe did some adjustments, and in the end we both believed in them. It’s the same at work. You need to make people aware of how to train themselves and the importance of believing in their targets. Then you can go for it 100% and succeed.”
Today, Sami is also coaching the number 1 squash player in Finland. His body finally realized how much he has been training, and now his knees are preventing him from running. That doesn’t stop Sami from being active at the gym and playing paddle. Sami love sports, loves competing and loves winning. Whether it’s a game of sports or a deal in business.