Starting from an empty office
Insinööritoimisto Comatec Oy was established on 24 March 1986, but its history goes back to the previous autumn, when Aulis Asikainen set up his own company in Tampere and started to work for himself.
”I am quite proud that the company really started from nothing.
“I shall always remember my first day at work. Sarvis Oy was being run down and I obtained a 20 square metre room in the Sarvis building. I had no idea where I was going to get work from. I tried to switch the lights on, but there was no lamp in the ceiling.
“I sat on the floor in the gloom for nearly an hour and thought about what I was going to do. But as far as I was concerned I was working.”
Asikainen left the empty office, obtained a couple of draughtsman’s desks and a telephone, and started to look round for clients. He an engineer who had been made redundant from the number two position in a machine shop, so he certainly had contacts, and no lack of self-confidence. The work started to come in.
Through the big recession
In 1987 the company moved to the current address on Kalevantie in Tampere, where it still has its head office, today in premises with more than 2000 square metres. Comatec designed the technical systems for the sorting centre for the Finnish Post Office.
At the end of the 1980s Finland was booming, but at the start of the 1990s the country was hit by recession and the Finnish markka was devalued twice. The young company was put to the test.
“We had about ten people working for us. We were hard pressed but we managed to get through without any lay-offs or redundancies. The Finnish Post Office and Outokumpu Oy provided quite a lot of work in Finland, in the USA we were kept busy for two years designing warehouses, and we designed conveyor systems in Germany. This was all good work that kept us going until 1995.”
The other original shareholders included Martti Ala-Vainio, who left in 1991, and Kauko Lehtonen, who was bought out in 1997, but Asikainen has kept on good terms with them.
Looking to the future
In the aftermath of the recession in 1995 Comatec took a step towards the future. Rolling stock manufacturer Transtech Oy moved its design function from Tampere to Oulu. Six of its employees came to work for Comatec, bringing with them work and knowhow in railway rolling stock.
A common feature during two recessions and other periods of transition has been that Comatec has always aimed to think of the future, anticipating the needs of its clients.
“Magnetic levitation trains will eventually come to Europe and replace air services. That is why we have railway knowhow,” Aulis Asikainen says now.
“Ships are evolving into means of transport and leisure facilities. There will still be a need for mobile machinery, and people have to be transported. Boiler plants are needed in the energy sector, and the mining industry is going to be a major sector in Finland. So our present business segments fit in with these developments.
“In 30 years’ time Finland Corp. will obtain its living from three things: from doing work, from wood and from mines.”
Survey points the way
Comatec survived the recession in the 1990s and began to establish itself. The company wanted to know what lay ahead for the sector, so it commissioned a strategic business sector survey from the university in 1997.
“The message from about 100 of the largest machine shops was that within three years the entire sector would switch from 2D to 3D design. We decided to develop 3D design, and we bought computers, software and training. We only saw the results of this in terms of net sales four or five years later.
“An important factor is that we have stayed within our sector and not branched out. We are an expert in metal and machine building. This involves quite a major choice.
“And we also haven’t moved into machine shop operations. I knew what that’s like. Many of our competitors have tripped up because they have sought to spread their options with manufacturing.”
We had a good time, and made money
Jorma Nordfors and Petri Leino, who had both joined the company from Transtech, also became Comatec shareholders at the end of the 1990s. The start of the 2000s was a brilliant time, as Aulis Asikainen recalls.
“Above all we were enjoying ourselves, and we made money. This went on for many years. In 2005 we began to wonder how it was possible for us just to keep on enjoying ourselves.” Asikainen considers the strategic business plan drawn up in 1997 to be one of the milestones in the company’s history. The new strategy project in 2005 was another.
“We were confronted by three issues. Firstly, what our customers needed more than anything else was shorter delivery times. A second major issue was maintaining a high enough quality. Whatever part of the world machinery was designed for, it had to work properly.
“The question of price was only third in priority. These observations still help to point the way forward for us today. In the early 2000s Comatec grew both organically and through acquisitions. Acquisitions have proved to be an effective way to boost creditability and volumes, and to establish a footing in new locations,” says Aulis Asikainen.
A limit to enjoyment
The global recession began in autumn 2008.
“In the last week of October everything came to a standstill, almost out of the blue. It brought an end to our enjoyment as well. The following year, 2009, was a very tough time. It was not very enjoyable.
“The first recession taught us the importance of a decent cash flow. That helped us get through the second recession more easily.
“We set up six strategy teams to consider what was going to happen to us in the future. We analysed our future business; what we are, what our capabilities are, and what clients expect of us.
“The Finnish way is often to paint everything black, to think that it does not pay to do things here or that we don’t have the skills here.
”We do have the skills, and a first class Chinese engineer with good language skills costs just as much.
“Finnish engineers are highly skilled, honest and quality-oriented. Very reliable. They are highly respected.”
Recipe for success
Comatec Group intends to continue to grow, further expanding its knowhow and meeting the needs of its clients. Its goal for the next 25 year period is to reach a size in the metal and machine building sector similar to that of Pöyry at the moment – to become a global consulting and engineering company with thousands of employees and net sales of more than half a billion euros.