From the maker of rubber boots in 1898 to telegraph cables in 1912 to electronics in the 1960s, Nokia Corp. morphed, merged and acquired its way from a Finnish factory to a telecommunications giant that is getting ready to announce a product blitz, including its first tablet, on Oct. 22.
By gosh, that's a far cry from galoshes.
Nokia's transformation intrigues Bill Gray, president of Uponor North America, which has launched its own corporate enterprise — Uponor Innovations LLC — to turn ideas into new products or even new businesses.
Gray is spreading the word that with its new subsidiary, Uponor is ready to puts its global resources — from employee expertise to financial support — behind good ideas that may or may not be related to the plumbing, fire safety, and heating and cooling systems it offers. The goal of Uponor Innovations is to identify emerging markets and tomorrow's game-changing products.
“Nokia is a great example of a company that was at one time known for what great rubber boots they made,” Gray said in a telephone interview. “Then, they pivoted to electronics and being a big cellphone manufacturer. I look at that type of innovation and change in focus and see that it can allow a company to prosper in different segments.”
Like Nokia, Uponor has undergone its own series of changes going back to 1620 when it started out forging steel weapons for the king of Sweden.
Royal armaments aside, the company more recently unveiled cross-linked polyethylene (PEX) tubing for potable water systems in the late 1960s. Even more recently, just a year ago, Uponor introduced PEX-a Pipe Support and two engineered polymer multiport tees for suspended piping applications. The latter product made a green building hot-product list and Uponor's print run of the instructions was depleted in three weeks.
Gray said the company has an internal infrastructure for new products and improvements, which tends to be incremental. Uponor Innovations adds a formal process to give attention to unsolicited external ideas and encourage other innovators to come forward.
Idea summaries can be submitted online. Two proposals already are in the pipeline being evaluated.
What is Uponor looking for?
Gray said ideas related to the company's core competencies of extruding PE into PEX will likely get serious consideration.
“There's some natural affinity there as well as the markets we compete in, which are residential and commercial plumbing and heating,” he said. “Those kinds of adjacencies probably would be most interesting to us. However, anything people bring to us that has some kind of commercial potential, we'll evaluate it and see if it fits with what we want to do. Although I don't think we'll go into commuter airlines any time soon.”
Ideas submitted to Uponor Innovations will be filtered and some will be pursued. The company wants to hear from its contractors, distributors, engineering network, and the public in general. Everyone from entrepreneurs to startups, business owners, management teams, investors and funds are invited to pitch plans.
“If it's a product idea, we have a robust product introduction process already,” Gray said. “If it's a business idea or someone has a business that hasn't been able to turn a corner, we can look at what management, distribution, sales, and marketing — we have a very strong brand and we know a lot about the right things to do — can bring to bear. We can grow it, maybe spin it off, maybe incorporate it into what we do. The possibilities are limitless. When we look at our board and cash position, we have assets. We can do this stuff.”
Uponor Corp., which is based in Vantaa, Finland, has about 3,200 employees in 30 countries, including 500 at its North American headquarters in Apple Valley, Minn. The company reported 2012 sales of $1.04 billion and North American pipe sales of $185.4 million.
Gray said the company's greatest competitive advantage probably is the ASTM F1960 standard “Pro-PEX” fitting system, which uses the chemical and elastic properties of PEX to create secure connections for joining plumbing and heating pipes.
“What's the next generation of joining technology?” Gray asked.
Why should inventors and innovators share the possible answer with Uponor, others may be wondering?
Gray said the company has the plastics engineers, distribution network, manufacturing representatives, technical services and funding to back the idea. In return, Uponor gets a first-look advantage at potential products and businesses at a time when it is known to be in acquisition mode.
“To me, when you look at the sustainability of a company for the long term, innovation is the most important thing — that renewal, that ability to understand possibilities — to flourish in the future,” Gray said.