Business forum a first at FinnFest

HOUGHTON – FinnFest USA started as an annual festival in 1983, but Wednesday’s opening day of FinnFest USA 2013 featured a first-time festival event: a business and technology forum.

About 60 registrants for the “Rediscovering Business and Technology in the New World” forum gathered at 9 a.m. Wednesday at Michigan Technological University’s Memorial Union Building Ballroom to kick off the two-day event.

“I think that FinnFest is a really great way to celebrate our heritage. All of us have done that in terms of presentation,” Marilyn Clark, CEO of the Michigan Tech Enterprise Corporation Smartzone, said during her late-morning presentation. “We’re here to enjoy the beautiful weather, but we’re also here to create a future partnership on a 21st century platform between the Keweenaw and between Finland. We’re thrilled that all of you are here to take part in that kind of message.”

Michigan Lt. Gov. Brian Calley was supposed to be in attendance until he was called back to Lansing on important business Tuesday night, but there were still plenty of dignitaries and successful economic developers in attendance.

Jukka Pietiknen, counsul general of Finland from New York was among them, and he was the lunch speaker after a morning full of information and advice from an array of other presenters.

The keynote address was delivered by Dr. Hidde Ronde, director of the VTT Technical Research Center of Finland, the largest technological applied research and development center in the Nordic countries.

“As a Dutchman, I probably shouldn’t be talking here at all,” joked Ronde. “Why am I here? The short answer is the Dutch are everywhere. The long answer is I’ve been married for 33 years to a beautiful, intelligent Finnish woman.”

After setting the tone for the day with a bit of humor, Ronde revealed the real reason he was presenting: “What I want to do is show what Finnish expertise can do.”

He described a number of big projects, including climate change, bioenergy – including a European innovation prize for a new bio-oil – biofuels and a biorefinery.

Next up was Susan Novakoski, director of regional attraction for the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, who was admittedly of Polish descent.

“I do know one Finnish word, I think, and that is ‘sisu,'” she said. “If I’m using it correctly in a sentence I would say from what I know of the people in this room, there’s a lot of sisu in this room with our economic developers.

“… Michigan is really rewriting its story as a state in terms of economic development. It is indeed a new day for business in Michigan.”

According to 24/7 Wall Street, Michigan was ranked the No. 1 state in recovering from the recent recession, and it has the sixth-fastest growing economy in the nation from 2011 according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis 2012 findings.

She described Michigan’s business-friendly climate, asset, infrastructure and talent and location advantage, along with some comparisons to Finland’s industry strengths.

Keith Raisanen, president of TyloHelo Inc., from Cokato, Minn., spoke next about how he, a plant pathologist who started his career with Michigan State University Extension in Houghton County, become a leader in the sauna sales industry.

He said it was quite by accident, specifically a call from the friend of a business acquaintance from Norway who was looking for a Finn from the Minneapolis area to import and sell his Finnleo sauna heaters. He decided it was “low risk and a good excuse to travel to Finland.”

Raisanen founded Finnleo Saunas of the North, Inc., in Cokato in 1984, and now through purchasing some key competitors and taking advantage of Finnish and Copper Country connections, TyloHelo is now the world’s largest sauna and steam bath manufacturer.

“This U.S.-Finland partnership, I believe it’s a true win-win development,” Raisanen said. “… Really, with my heart in the Keweenaw (literally – he met his wife in Calumet), it really is a natural base for Finnish companies.”

Clark spoke next, describing the Copper Country as a “soft landing” spot for Finnish companies.

“We have assets that help Finnish companies come here and feel comfortable that they get the help to do business in the North American market, and it’s still the largest one in the world,” Clark said.

Val Kratzman, head of the Finland Trade Center of Finpro, in Washington, D.C., wrapped up the morning with all kinds of advice garnered through Finpro’s unique position as the only quasi-government agency between the world and Finland.

“If you have a business issue, a business concern, we probably have the ability to solve that for you,” he said.

Some of the advice he offered includes:

“It’s not what you make, it’s what you can do.”

“Focus on the problem, not the solution. In many cases the best thing to do is create the problem so you become the solution.”

“Spend time in the market you want to go to. … Learn where you want to put your feet before you jump in.”

“People will always talk to you if you’re not selling, and in the process of not selling you can go sell.”

Wednesday afternoon, the attendees split into two different sections, one on business and trade opportunities, and the other on bioenergy, both of which included presentations and town hall panel discussions.

Today the forum is concluding with visits to the MTEC Smartzone, Tech’s research centers and the Finlandia University Jutila Center for Global Design and Business, along with a 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. bioenergy tour, and a 3 to 5 p.m. Finnish American Chamber of Commerce Roundtable at the Jutila Center.