Last updated on May 20th, 2019 at 11:23 hrs.
Some Nordic brands do well abroad because their innovation was born out of necessity at home, or their technology was developed early on to address a pain point sorely felt in arctic circumstances.
Mobile communications frontrunners Ericsson and Nokia are examples in case. In large, thinly populated areas with harsh terrain and long, cold winters, developing radio technology for telecommunications seemed like a compelling idea compared to upgrading wired infrastructure.
But it’s not only information and communication technology where this applies. In architecture and construction, balcony glazer Lumon Oy from the south-eastern Finnish city of Kouvola demonstrates, too, that early adoption of innovation at home can pave the way for international expansion when the rest of the world is ready for it.
The added value of balcony glazing is clearly bigger if you have more pronounced seasons, with snow, slush, hail, rain, and stormy weather all in the mix. On top of that, many Finns have a cottage in the countryside where they’d love to spend more time than just during the short summers. Terrace glazing often makes that more feasible.
Forty years and a million customers later
Lumon is a family business, founded by Tapani Kinnunen in 1979. Kinnunen had started out as a window installer and salesman. As he learned first-hand how customers’ needs were evolving, he established Lumon to design, produce and market his own hardware.
Forty years later Lumon has served a million customers, manufactured five million glass panels, and almost a million kilometers in glass balustrades. With 950 employees and operations in more than twenty countries, the firm reported revenue of 138 million euros in 2018, up from 122 million euros the year before.
Export Manager Pete Lattunen has witnessed Lumon’s internationalization journey from the inside. He invited me to Kouvola for a tour of the factory on a cold but sunny day in January. We talked about glazing, some of the challenges associated with going abroad, and our mutual humble insights into the Finnish and Dutch psyche.
Pete started at Lumon some 17 years ago. An architect by training, he had noticed an article about balcony facades in the company’s magazine. He was interested in the impact of the exterior on the living environment and decided to connect with Tapani Kinnunen.
Speaking the language of architects
The founder hired Pete to join the company’s ‘technical department’. His role was to interpret between architects and Lumon’s engineers. Since he spoke their language, he was able to exchange ideas with architects, exploring what balconies of the future might look like. He then brought those ideas into Lumon’s innovation process.
Through an architect from Ireland, Pete got involved with a project in Dublin, exploring if Lumon’s glazing products could be used there. A leading Irish construction company, The SISK Group, got interested in the Finnish product, but Lumon had no local reseller.
So Pete was tasked with the ‘export department’. From then on, his main job was to sell the concept of balcony glazing to anyone who would hear it, from the U.K. to Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Spain, Russia, and Canada.
In Finland, Lumon has a market share of 70 percent, selling to private consumers, architects and construction companies. Says Pete: “In Finland, everybody knows what balcony glazing is and everybody seriously considers getting it. In many other countries, people may have never seen it or it may have never occurred to them.
Different value for different people
“In many European countries, including Holland, most developers would not easily think, let’s add balcony glazing because it will give people additional semi-living space rather than a windy balcony. They don’t necessarily realize that if you pay 3000 euros, the value of the apartment may increase by up to 7000 euros.
“Initially, the main selling point for balcony glazing was to shelter people from wind and rain,” Pete explains. “But it offers many other benefits. It protects the structure of the building, especially in climates where the temperature often fluctuates around zero degrees Celcius. It helps to save energy. And we didn’t even realize how much it protects against noise. This has become a very significant factor, particularly in central Europe.
“In Finland, the market is so mature that everyone understands the value. So the discussion is about how good the products are and how they are priced. People focus on how easy it is to use, how well the panels slide, and the overall feeling of quality of the hardware.”
What can Pete tell us about doing business with the Dutch? “What I think I’ve learned is that for any Finnish company starting operations in the Netherlands,” he says, “it will find itself surrounded by a vast amount of competitive offerings. You’re in the heart of Europe, the port of Europe, where companies from the whole continent are present. I’m sure there is heavy competition in any field of business.”
Tough but fair
“In my experience, Dutch people are very straightforward,” he continues. “If they don’t like your product, they will say it loud and clear. You know, in some other cultures people would not say it and that would leave you less well-informed.
“All in all, I would characterize the Dutch market as tough but fair,” Pete says. “You get the opportunity. If your product is good and the price is fine, you will win. If not, you will lose. Then you need to do your homework and come back. I don’t think many deals are lost because of political games being played behind closed doors.
“The fact that Dutch people have been doing business with other nations, like, forever, makes it perhaps a little easier. The language and the willingness to trade are obviously not a problem. Back in the 17th century, the Dutch were conquering the seven seas and creating trade connections everywhere. At the same time, we Finns were living in the back forest, in the corner of Europe. So we need to step up a bit. If we are too humble and not active enough, we may not see the results we are hoping for.”
Pete emphasizes that self-confidence is key. “Present your offering with pride. Have the confidence that you actually bring value to the market. Don’t be shy – you don’t need to be aggressive, but perhaps more active and a little bit louder than you are used to at home.”