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Thursday, January 19, 2006 

Suunto

Suunto watches

Tuomas Vohlonen was an outdoors man and a keen orienteering enthusiast, and had long been bothered by a problem: the inaccuracy of traditional dry compasses and their lack of steady needle operation.

An inaccurate reading meant that he could often miss a control point on an orienteering route. This bothered Vohlonen big time. Being an engineer with an inventive turn of mind, he decided to make the problem go away.

His solution? To fill a field compass with liquid. The result? A much steadier needle, better readings, and a new level of accuracy.

Vohlonen’s invention also gave birth to Suunto Oy. The year? 1936.

The company could equally have been called Suunta Oy or Direction Ltd. Because that was what the company was, and is, about. Pointing the way forward, putting you on the right track, whatever direction you’re going in.

Suunto’s early years were modest. But the company had a good product. Accurate and rugged. So good, in fact, that it was not long before Vohlonen was selling manufacturing licences for his design in a number of countries. The licenses brought the company some welcome money. Later, however, they would also bring the company a major competitor when Suunto expanded internationally.

A liquid-filled field compass was far from being Vohlonen’s only invention. If he had lived longer, he would no doubt have build a complete family of products around his original idea. As Suunto has since done.

Tuomas Vohlonen died in 1939, the same year that saw the start of Finland’s Winter War. The Winter War was soon followed by the Continuation War. Armies were on the move around the world, and soldiers always need to know where they are going, and need compasses.

Suunto stepped into the breach. By 1944, when the Continuation War with the Soviet Union came to an end, Suunto had supplied the Finnish Army with some 100,000 compasses. Suunto’s partnership with the army, and other armies, did not end there, however.

With the coming of peace, the Finnish Army’s need for compasses was dramatically reduced. It was time for Suunto to look at the international market in earnest, and by 1950 the company was exporting compasses to over 50 countries around the world, including Canada and the United States. Quite an achievement for a small company from Finland back then.

Tuomas Vohlonen’s widow, Elli decided to sell the company in 1952, to a professor and two chemical engineers: Paavo Kajanne, Aarne Mahnala, and Veli-Jussi Hölsö.

1952 was something of a milestone for Finland as a whole, not just Suunto. Helsinki finally got to hold the Olympic Games, which had originally been planned for 1940. The torches carried to light the Olympic flame were Suunto products. Sport was already a familiar area to the new three-man team of owners, as they already owned Redox, a producer of ski wax. The team quickly puts its mind to developing Suunto. Sailing has always been popular in Finland, with its thousands of lakes inland and its coastal archipelagos. Knowing where you are on the water has always been a basic aspect of seafaring. Improving the directional stability and accuracy of marine compasses was a logical next step for Suunto.

And if you need a compass on the water, you also need one under water as well. The result? Suunto’s first diver’s compass.

Next step was to develope bearing compass and clinometer. The lucky owner of Suunto’s first clinometer? King Gustav Adolf VI of Sweden.

Exports continued to grow in the 1970s, and in 1972 Suunto was awarded the President of Finland’s Award for Export Achievement.

In 1979, Suunto changed hands again, and was acquired by Hämeen Peruna Oy and the Niemistö family. The 1980s were a time of extensive expansion, through acquisitions in Suunto’s original core business and related areas. By mid-decade, half of Suunto’s personnel were based outside Finland.

This growth did not come without its own measure of pain, however. Diversification was the popular strategy of the time, but managing widely diversified companies is not easy. Suunto needed a new structure, and a new umbrella marketing identity. The Suunto Group was born.

The Amer Group also grew rapidly at the same time, also mainly through acquisitions. In 1989, Amer took a major step forward when it acquired Wilson Sporting Goods of the US, and Wilson’s distinctive red W logo known around the world.

Suunto focused on combining its strength in precision mechanics with new skills in electronics. Accuracy, reliability, and ruggedness have long been Suunto’s key values. And when Suunto has not been able to achieve the accuracy it wants with off-the-shelf equipment, it makes its manufacturing equipment itself.

1987 saw the appearance of what was later to prove the seed of much of the company’s later growth, with the start of mass production of the SME dive computer. That was 13 years ago, and today Suunto is the international market leader in dive computers and related instruments. Last year, the company’s sales rose by 80% on a world market that grew by only some 5%.

Suunto’s first diver’s compasses were a success, and a whole family of diving-related products have been developed around them, including pressure gauges, depth gauges, and docking units that can be equipped with a variety of different gauges and instruments as needed.

In 1994, the Amer Group took another major step with its acquisition of Austrian-based Atomic.

A few years earlier, in 1990, Suunto again got a new owner, in the shape of Sponsor. The management philosophy of the time also changed. The focus was now put on core competencies. Non-core businesses were divested, and Suunto was split into two divisions: Suunto and Electronics.

1995 saw another major milestone in the country’s development. What had started off as a garage start-up became a listed company on the Helsinki Stock Exchange. With three main business areas: outdoors, diving and water sports, and electronics.

In 1997, Suunto launched the world’s first wristop dive computer, the Spyder. This was followed in 1998 by the Vector. These two were the first wristop computers to be based on sensor technology. The Vector was soon followed by a new product family.

What started off as a company in the business of measuring direction, and changes in direction, moved into one measuring gradients, heights, and depth as well, on land and underwater. As component technology advanced, it has proved possible to pack more and more features into smaller and smaller products. The traditional measurements have been joined by air pressure, time, and heart rate. The Observer, launched in spring 2001, is 40% smaller than any previous Suunto wristop computer.

In October 1999, the Amer Group made a bid for Suunto, which was accepted, and in March 2000 the company was delisted.

What attracted Amer most was Suunto’s electronics expertise. Amer’s vision is to bring the latest electronics and IT technology to the world of sport in a big way - and to offer people, whether they are golfers or tennis players, or skiers or snowboarders, the best products in the field through its Wilson, Atomic and Precor brands.

This strategy of offering people the best is what Suunto has been about ever since Tuomas Vohlonen produced his first compass. Both companies have also been committed to becoming world market leaders and the number-one brands in their businesses.

Amer’s sports goods are strong in their sector, while Suunto’s strengths lie in its instrumentation and electronics expertise. Amer has given Suunto a broader financial and R&D base, and new sales muscle through Amer Sports European’s distribution and marketing channels. Sales of Suunto’s products through Amer’s distribution organisation have started worldwide.

Cooperation between the two companies is growing all the time. Amer has a uniquely powerful sports and recreation product portfolio in Wilson, Atomic, Precor and Suunto. Together, the four brands make a truly winning team.

With the growth in Suunto’s size in recent years, the company’s old site in Espoo proved too small, and personnel moved to new premises near Helsinki-Vantaa Airport at the beginning of 2001.

Today, Suunto has one business area instead of the previous three: Sports Instruments. One company with one goal, to be the world’s most attractive sports instrumentation brand.

The company has strengthened its R&D capability significantly, and enhanced and improved the way that it works. The result is a team stretching all the way from research to production, marketing, and the customer. And based on a process that starts where it should, from what the customer needs - and what he, or she, dreams of.

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