Weather fascination turns ex-government man into gale-force entrepreneur
NORMAN — Meteorologist Mike Eilts could’ve continued to rock along in his former, nearly twodecade government job with the National Severe Storms Laboratory. He had risen to assistant director, had attained the maximum, six-figure pay grade, and was comfortable in the position.
But Eilts quit in 2000 to start Weather Decision Technologies Inc. (WDT). He and four colleagues who left with him wanted to mine their own raw weather data to provide higher resolution models to businesses with vested interests in the weather.
“We raised $1 million right out of the chute,” Eilts said. “We called it our 3-F fundraising round — family, friends and fools,” he said, laughing.
No one is laughing now. In 2002, the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology helped the startup raise another $1 million, and in 2007, WDT attracted its first big investor.
Today, the company has 600 global customers — from cruise lines and oil and gas companies with multibillion-dollar offshore assets to insurance and roofing companies and sponsors of athletic events and outdoor concerts and festivals. About 90 percent are domestic, but worry about weather — hurricanes, high winds, lightning and more — in thousands of locations worldwide.
Depending on their needs, some customers pay as little as $1,000 a year for WDT’s services, Eilts said, while others sign halfmillion-dollar or more contracts for 24-hour, dedicated monitoring with phoned personalized warnings.
The company also now owns the RadarScope app, which has 500,000 users who, depending on preferences, pay $10 to $100 a year.
In 18 years, WDT has generated $140 million in revenues, Eilts said. Today, it employs 83 fulltime workers with average annual salaries of $78,000, along with a dozen parttime employees, he said.
The company announced Oct. 8 that it’s being acquired by Burnsville, Minnesota-based DTN, which has 18 offices globally that serve more than 2 million customers. Eilts, 59, will remain as part of the executive team.
From the WDT offices on the University of Oklahoma South Research Campus, he sat down with The Oklahoman on Monday to talk about his life and career. This is an edited transcript:
Q: Earning a Boy Scouts merit badge spurred your initial interest in meteorology. How old were you?
A: I was 12. I was always good at math and science, so meteorology was a natural fascination. My father was a civil engineer, and my mother was a stay-athome mom. I’m the oldest of eight, including three adopted brothers and sisters. From the time I was in the third or fourth grade, my parents took in foster children and adopted those who didn’t go back to their families or to a forever home. We all gather every summer and at Christmas in St. Paul, Minnesota, where I lived my first 20 years and where my parents and siblings still live.
Q: Besides Boy Scouts, in what else were you involved in school?
A: I traded Scouts for sports in high school. I played golf and basketball and walked onto the golf team at the University of Minnesota, where I went my first two years of college and, to save money, lived at home. Then, I hopped in my car and drove to OU, because of its top national meteorology program. The year I left home, it snowed before Thanksgiving in Minnesota, and the snow didn’t melt until mid-April.
Q: You worked 17 years for the National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, rising from a research scientist to assistant director. What are the highlights of your time there?
A: Most of my peers wanted to be research scientists, including learning why tornadoes tick. But I wanted to build software to help people; to detect and solve things for society. I was responsible for managing numerous contracts with FAA, DOD, NASA and other agencies, totaling more than $8.4 million annually, in addition to a $2.5 million base-funded budget. I also grew our staff to 100. Our milestones included developing major modernization upgrades to components of the nationwide NEXRAD system; delivery of four weather detection algorithms to the NEXRAD program; development and testing of a prototype Warning Decision Support System at 16 sites around the country including in Atlanta as part of the Olympics weather support; and completing the field phase of a $4 million experiment called VORTEX. We were doing powerful stuff and getting funded for it.
Q: The 1996 movie “Twister” is based on the experiences of you and other storm chasers with the National Severe Storms Laboratory. Is the film a true depiction of what chasing tornadoes is like?
A: Parts of the movie are a farce, with cows flying by and mooing as they go by. At the end, Helen Hunt’s and Bill Paxton’s characters, in a real tornado, would’ve been ripped from the metal posts to which they strapped their belts and hit by flying debris. We did have a data-gathering machine that we devised and dropped ahead of tornadoes. We named ours “Toto.” In the movie, they call theirs “Dorothy.” The closest we got to a tornado was a couple hundred yards, before we floored it. Large hail broke our windows and dented our truck. Today, with advances to Doppler radio, we can give 14-minute advance warnings ahead of tornadoes, which is a huge public service. Today’s technology is such that we can accurately forecast severe weather some three days out. Every decade, we get a day better.
Q: WDT has customers across North America, Australia, South America and Europe. Where have you traveled, and what’s your favorite city outside the U.S.?
A: I’ve been to Paraguay, China, Brazil, lots of countries in Europe, Thailand and South Korea. In 2007, we had a big international deal with Dubai airport. Dubai — on the southeast coast of the Persian Gulf and the largest and most populous city in the United Arab Emirates — is the coolest place I’ve been. You experience such a dichotomy of cultures there — from European women wearing short skirts to Arab women whose dress only shows their eyes. Dubai is home to the tallest building in the world, and a mall with a ski slope inside. It’s crazy.
Michael D. Eilts president and CEO, Weather Decision Technologies Inc., is shown in the company’s office on the southern edge of the University of Oklahoma’s campus.