I wrote and photographed this piece for my NYTimes T Style column People Watching. It originally ran in October 2012.
Sometimes a mundane inquiry unearths a wonderful surprise. During a recent trip to Sweden I asked a couple of friends if they had any suggestions of interesting people to reach out to. Out of the blue I got an e-mail that read, “I heard about a 23-year-old woman running a 200-year-old ax company. But don’t know much more…” It sounded too good to be true. But about a week later, Julia Kalthoff’s contact info arrived in my in-box, and a plan was set to venture out into the Swedish countryside to visit Wetterlings Swedish Axe Works (which has actually been around since 1880) in Storvik, about two hours north of Stockholm.
So how did a 23-year-old end up running a 130-year-old Swedish ax manufacturer? “I wasn’t really planning for it. It just happened,” Kalthoff told me when I finally met her in person. At 19, Kalthoff had a notion that she might like blacksmithing, so she signed up for a 10-day course at a forge in northern Sweden, bartering tuition, which she couldn’t afford, in exchange for working odd jobs — gardening and cleaning, mapmaking and marketing. After about six months of “working and forging,” she took a job as a temporary manager at Wetterlings. When her three-month tenure was up, she stayed on, and about a year later took over as C.E.O.
In her three years as C.E.O., Kalthoff has brought a breath of fresh air to the company; with her at the helm, Wetterlings has won a prize for employee work practices, returned the factory to hydroelectric power and instituted an annual Ax Day, with funky events like free ax tattoos in 2011, and ax blade shaves in 2012. Have a conversation with Kalthoff about anything ax related, and it’s clear that she has found her passion. “If you have an ax,” Kalthoff says, “you will find that you use it all the time after a while. I use axes at my office even, to open packages or cut paper or anything that I can.”