Warm-hearted living in Leppävirta
“I have always felt it was important that the countryside stays populated, clean and that people here are free to pursue their business ventures,” says Timo Hulkkonen, founder of Gebwell.
Timo Hulkkonen, who has lived virtually his entire live in Leppävirta, North Savo along Finnish national road 5 and Lake Saimaa’s network of deep channels, has a colourful history as an entrepreneur and has always been distinguished by his tenacity, drive to work together with others and willingness to consider those around him, as well as his forward-looking attitude – all combined with a characteristically jovial Savonian approach. “No worries; everything will work out.”
A gofer in his dream job
Hulkkonen’s long career in the HVAC sector started at fourteen, when the resourceful and go-getting youngster was offered a “dream job” at the company Onninen. The errand boy’s role was to deliver bills in the Varkaus area until his duties changed and his “first ever promotion” became a reality. Becoming a fitter’s apprentice, Hulkkonen got his first real taste of the fascinating world of HVAC and the work of a pipe fitter.
After serving his time in the army in 1970, Hulkkonen joined Leppävirran Putki ja Metalli, the piping company started by his father, where he took great joy in his work despite receiving less pay than the other fitters doing the same work. In 1974, the right time came for Timo to fly the nest and start his own fitting company, LVI Asennuspalvelu Ky.
His work with his father continued in the form of subcontracting – at market prices, of course.
From 1976 to 1978, Timo did his business in Outokumpu, having bought his father’s HVAC branch shop there. These two years were, and likely will remain, the only ones in Hulkkonen’s life spent somewhere else than Leppävirta.
By the 1980s, Timo had bought the half of his father’s company specialising in metals and was taking his first steps into the world of district heating. From 1983 to 1985, the company’s prospects were excellent, as large companies were beginning to abandon district heating substation production. LP Metalli rushed in to fill the void they left behind. The company started seeing success right away.
The computer whirs away
Expanding the company’s operations would require not only a trailblazing attitude but also things like a bank loan and maybe even a company computer. The bank, of course, refused to give Hulkkonen a loan for a computer. After all, if the bank itself didn’t have one, why on earth would his company need such a thing? Delaying the payment of the company’s bills to its suppliers for as long as he could, Hulkkonen eventually scraped together enough funds to buy LP Metalli a company computer.
With the computer, preparing delivery slips and invoices and getting them dispatched by post became a quick and easy task, which was a rare thing at that time. Customers often even received the invoices before the delivery.
In 1982 and 1983, the company’s business activities expanded to Sweden, and its name was changed to LPM Group Ltd.
Developing its own district heating technology and acquiring businesses from companies like Kymi-Strömberg and Rauma-Repola caused LPM to grow rapidly. Slowly, the company began stretching around the world, completing a large and successful collaboration in China with the Finnish company IVO.
But the greatest twist in LPM’s story occurred during the turn of the 1990s. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, the company’s attention turned to Poland, as district heating was widely used in the formerly socialist countries of Eastern Europe. Exports started right away in the early 90s, and, once business activities in Poland had gained a steady foothold, the company built a new factory there.
The phone wouldn’t stop ringing
Expertise, innovative technology and an uncompromising drive to develop solutions together with customers and partners helped LPM grow year after year. The company took good care of its customers and staff.
Of course, LPM’s reputation for excellence and its rapid growth meant that ever more prospective buyers were turning up at Hulkkonen’s door. “The bigger our market share, the more familiar the ringing of my doorbell and phone became.”
Eventually, in 2003, Hulkkonen gave in and sold LPM Group to the Danish company Danfoss in good spirits.
Hulkkonen experienced the greatest disappointment of his career slightly over a year after the sale, when it appeared the Danish parent company intended to move LPM’s production plant out of Leppävirta to a country with lower labour prices, such as Slovenia or Poland. This meant that as many as 150 people in Leppävirta might lose their jobs.
In addition, Danfoss’s different production philosophy did not reflect the principles that mattered most to Hulkkonen, who felt that every district heating solution needed customer-specific tailoring and close cooperation. Danfoss wanted to streamline its production and service style and take it in a very different direction to the one Hulkkonen had held to for many years.
A second round
So started Hulkkonen’s second round as an entrepreneur – with the birth of Gebwell in 2005. Initially, the company focused on ground source heat pumps and their accessories, the production of which was subcontracted in Leppävirta. This was followed by the drilling of heat and water wells. In 2006 and 2007, the company’s own equipment production got up to speed, and it started producing heat pumps – in Hulkkonen’s own garage.
Their vision of the company’s future was firm and confident, and their belief and drive held even in the grips of the worst recession and when faced with heavy factory investment.
In 2008, the company’s product catalogue expanded to cover district heating with the commencement of construction on a district heating substation following the expiry of Hulkkonen’s non-compete clause.
In late 2012, Hulkkonen moved on from the CEO’s seat and became the Chairman of the Board for the company he had founded. In April 2021, Timo Hulkkonen stepped down as Chairman of the Board at his own request, after a respectable eight-year term. Hulkkonen will continue as the company’s main owner and member of the Board.
Evening hay for the horses
It is August 2021 and Timo Hulkkonen lives in his familiar home municipality of Leppävirta and runs a thriving horse farm he started in 2005 out of his love for horses.
Timo came to know horses as a child, when he rode around the farmstead on the back of a horse performing his summer chores. According to Hulkkonen, the difference between working with horses and working with HVAC is that you can’t buy spare parts for horses; you need to raise them as well as you can from day one. As testament to this idea, Hulkkonen’s horse farm holds the record for the fastest time in Europe and won its fourth Finnish harness racing championship in 2020.
In his free time, Hulkkonen, who recently passed the 70-year milestone, does his best to improve his golf skills and enjoys reading. Having lived his life surrounded by nature, the entrepreneur from Leppävirta has always valued and respected the nature around him – in both his personal life and his business ventures.
This easy-to-approach Savonian man is extremely grateful for one everyday fact that he hopes will be part of a climate-friendly future:
“Here in the countryside of Leppävirta, you don’t need to spend your day at traffic lights. There are so many things in life that are more important. Things like giving the horses their evening hay.”