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4/3/2003

Finnish line

By Tony Kindelspire
The Daily Times-Call

LOUISVILLE — As Pekka Ketonen raised his champagne in tribute to his employees, he said he hoped his company’s partnerships “should always be fruitful.” It was the partnerships, after all, that led Vaisala, a Finnish company, to locate its North American headquarters in a brand new building in the Colorado Tech Center.

Ketonen flew to Colorado from the company’s headquarters in Helsinki, Finland, this week, as Vaisala held an open house to show off its $5.5 million, 40,000-square-foot building.

“We have never owned property outside of Finland before — this is our first time,” Ketonen told employees who had gathered for a toast, adding that it showed the “strong commitment” the company has to a presence in the Boulder area.

Ketonen said locating the company’s North American headquarters in Boulder County made perfect sense because Vaisala, which makes equipment and systems for measuring weather and environmental conditions, already has established relationships with the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

It has also licensed technology from Ball Aerospace, another one of the partners Ketonen referred to.

“It’s appropriate that a company that measures weather located here in Colorado, where we’ve just witnessed four seasons in two weeks,” quipped Dan Kanumen, who was at Tuesday’s ceremony representing the Finnish consulate in Denver.

Vaisala’s history dates back to 1931, when Professor Vilho Väisälä first invented the “dropsonde,” a device used to measure atmospheric conditions. In 1936, Vaisala — the English spelling of the Finn’s last name — was formed.

“This is the primary measuring device for meteorological signs in a hurricane,” said Herb Winston, a project and business development manager with Vaisala, referring to the company’s signature product.

These days, the dropsondes are tubes about 14 inches in length, containing measuring devices, a global positioning satellite chip, and a transmitter that uploads the data to a satellite.

“They can fly in the middle of a hurricane or above the hurricane and relay that information from the dropsonde down to the ground,” explained Curt Arellano, a production manager for Vaisala Soundings, a division of the company. Arellano said the company sells about 3,000 to 5,000 of the dropsondes a year.

While the dropsondes are “our moneymaker for us,” according to Arellano, it’s only one of many products Vaisala makes.

The next generation of the dropsonde is the “rocketsonde,” in which the same measuring instruments are launched via rocket one kilometer into the air from ships at sea.

Vaisala also makes the “tethersonde,” devices usually dangled from weather balloons. The company’s visibility sensor system is used at all of the major airports in the United States and is the only system like it approved by the Federal Aviation Administration. Vaisala even makes road sensors — small devices put into the asphalt of roads and runways that are used to remotely monitor road conditions.

Other devices are used by the U.S. Geological Survey and the Bureau of Land Management to monitor fire or flood conditions.

“They can just be dropped into a remote location and autonomously collect data,” said Tapani Lane, an operations manager with Vaisala’s Solutions Division.

Militaries around the world use Vaisala’s products, as do private companies like the Walt Disney Co. — which employs the equipment to monitor wind conditions for fireworks displays at Disneyland.

“With any one product you may see, it’s not really geared for any one customer but rather for a class of customer,” Winston said.

Vaisala posted sales of $196 million in 2002, a nearly 7 percent increase over the previous year. According to the company, 41 percent of its sales were in North America, and 35 percent were in Europe.

“So this is the No. 1 country right now,” Ketonen told his group of 62 employees, along with special guests from NCAR, NOAA and the like who showed up at Tuesday’s ceremonies.

While “the current world economic environment and, you could say, the political environment, is very tough,” he said, his company has managed to hold onto its market share.

Winston said he began working for Vaisala when the company he had been working for was purchased by the Finnish company, a strategy that has helped it grow rapidly in the United States.

“Vaisala’s been acquiring local meteorological companies for the last five years now,” Winston said, adding that one such company was a Tucson, Ariz., firm that developed technology to track lightning strikes.

“Whenever you look at those little strikes on the TV screen, that’s a Vaisala-produced product,” said Winston.

Tony Kindelspire can be reached at 303-776-2244, Ext. 291, or by e-mail at tkindelspire@times-call.com.