Seeing Growth Potential in Being Green

Lassi Noponen heads Finland's Proventia Group, which was launched about five years ago. Its component companies had revenue of nearly $25 million last year.
Lassi Noponen heads Finland's Proventia Group, which was launched about five years ago. Its component companies had revenue of nearly $25 million last year. (By Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)
By Robert G. Kaiser
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 1, 2005

OULU, Finland -- Lassi Noponen, chief executive of Finland's Proventia Group, has his eye on General Electric Co., a firm thousands of times bigger than his own that recently announced plans to remake itself with "ecomagination," emphasizing ecologically friendly research and products to make money from being green.

It's not every day that a group of small companies like his can be flattered by one of the biggest multinational corporations, Noponen said in an interview here. But that is how he has interpreted GE's new initiative, announced May 9 by chief executive Jeffrey R. Immelt. Profiting from ecologically friendly products and services, Immelt's stated new goal, has been Proventia's objective since the company was launched nearly five years ago.

Noponen realizes that his modest group is no match for GE, but he thinks it can compete with anyone in its chosen areas of business. One is wind-powered electric turbines, produced with unique technology by a Proventia-owned company named WindWind.

WindWind recently announced the sale of a 24-megawatt "farm" of windmill turbines to Estonia, Finland's neighbor. The company will build eight giant machines with propellers 90 feet long, each generating three megawatts of power. The deal will be worth $30 million, Noponen said.

Finland, a creative little country of just 5.2 million people but enough skill and ambition to create Nokia Oyj, the biggest cell phone company in the world, is aggressively pursuing the next Nokia or, more realistically, a whole generation of new companies that can help what is already one of Europe's most successful economies remain competitive.

Finnish entrepreneurs are investing in eco-friendly businesses. Their most important salesmen may not be Finnish businesspeople (for whom, many here acknowledge, salesmanship is not a natural talent), but the European Union's regulation writers in Brussels who set the community's ecological standards.

Proventia, for example, hopes to make millions from the new E.U. regulation requiring the original manufacturer to recapture and recycle at least 75 percent of the contents of every piece of electronics and electrical equipment sold in Europe. The new standard comes into force in August, and adapting to it will cost companies (including some U.S. corporations) huge amounts of money, according to Noponen. He hopes Proventia companies will earn a lot of that money.

Proventia Automation, another member of the group, already produces machines that can cut up television sets and computer monitors, separating leaded from unleaded glass with a laser and recycling all the glass and other valuable, reusable components. Noponen hopes the E.U.'s new standard will produce numerous new customers for this technology.

More broadly, his firm can provide information technology and management advice to help manufacturers figure out how to meet the new rules most efficiently. Manufacturers of electronic equipment can actually make money by recycling their own creations when their useful lives are over, Noponen said.

Proventia's component companies had revenue of nearly $25 million last year. They project sales of $35 million this year and more than $60 million in 2007.

Another fast-growing Finnish firm banking on the impact of regulation is Green Rock Oy, manufacturer of a relatively simple and inexpensive sewage treatment device for a single-family house built beyond the reach of urban sewage systems. Larger models can be used by businesses or institutions.

Green Rock, too, is the beneficiary of a new E.U. regulation. This one requires that every new building put up in the E.U. that is not on a sewer system include its own wastewater treatment to bring pollution, particularly phosphates, to acceptable levels. Phosphate pollution is a major cause of the distress of the Chesapeake Bay and many of the world's waters.

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