When Jim Sweeney graduated from University of North Dakota, he vowed he would never live in his homestate of North Dakota again.
He took off. First to Boston, where he put his marketing degree to work in commercial insurance. Then to Minneapolis. It wasn’t until seven years later, after a phone call with his older brother Patrick, that he began to reconsider.
Patrick had recently taken over Weather Modification Inc. (WMI), a Fargo-based company which specializes in cloud seeding and atmospheric research. He wanted Jim to come back and help him grow the business.
“I’ll never forget his words,” Sweeney said. “He told me, ‘It just makes sense.'”
Jim laughed. “I told him, ‘Well how much cents does it make?'”
Turns out it made enough sense. Seven years after he made his vow never to return, Jim came back to North Dakota. And he dove in headfirst.
“It puts Fargo on the map.”
It started shortly after Jim joined WMI in 1993, when the Sweeney brothers realized something. They needed planes. This lead to the brothers co-founding a fixed-base operator (FBO), or commercial aviation service provider, with the approval of the Hector International Airport.
“We needed planes, and we knew there was an opportunity here,” Sweeney said. “There was an existing FBO, but they didn’t even know what a red carpet was.”
The Fargo Jet Center opened in 1995 and has been rapidly growing since then. Now, over 500 international flights come through each year, Sweeney said. Their team in the entire enterprise has grown from 15 employees to 200. Their reach is expanding, too – recently they purchased an FBO in Minneapolis and sold an FBO in Williston, Sweeney said.
“My day to day is coaching our team and growing the leadership,” Sweeney said. “That’s where I see my biggest roles – helping our senior leaders and everybody on our teams perform at their best.”
Part of their success is because Fargo is in a prime location for an FBO, Sweeney explained. Geographically, it falls at the perfect mid-way refueling point for long flights from places like Moscow or London to the West Coast.
The efficiency of a small private airport in Fargo is also helpful when big names are coming through, and hoping to avoid crowded security lines at larger airports. (Or, if you’re Tom Hanks, and want to make a quick stop at TNT’s Diner.)
“It’s quick and easy, and makes for a positive experience in Fargo,” Sweeney said. “It puts us on the map.”
“The ability to suppress hail.”
Less visible, but on the same grounds as the Fargo Jet Center, is the base for Weather Modification Inc. (WMI). This company is active around the world – and the work they do is almost like a superpower. Not many people can say they have “the ability to suppress hail,” but it’s something Sweeney can plant a stake in as Executive Vice President at WMI.
“Suppressing hail comes from working on casualty insurance in Alberta,” he explained.”We help reduce hail claims.”
Without going into too much detail, Weather Modification Inc. allows for pilots to fly into the clouds and release chemicals that – if conditions are compliant- can alter the weather. When working in hail storms, Sweeney said he’s watched the clouds change before his eyes.
One example of their work is reducing hail in places like Calgary, Alberta. Their work can save up to $50M annually in car damages, he said. (For an excellent, more in depth article on how WMI pilots literally “make it rain”, check out this recent article in Bloomberg.)
WMI is currently working in places like the National Forest, India, Greece, West Africa and other places around the world, Sweeney said. Recently, Sweeney met with the Moroccan Air Force to discuss some weather planning with them as well. The demand is only going up.
Sweeney has high hopes that WMI will only continue to expand with the demand for their services.
“There is not another company in the world that has the personnel and the experience of Weather Modification Inc.,” he said.
The man who vowed never to return
It was nearly 40 years ago that a young Jim Sweeney vowed never to return to North Dakota. Now, he could not stress enough how much he is thankful for his homestate.
“North Dakota is a fabulous place to conduct business,” he said. “People don’t realize that until you start doing most of your business outside this area. Negotiating, and relationships, and all those things – are so much easier here than anywhere else.”
The recent growth in the entrepreneurial ecosystem has only strengthened his affection for the state, he said.
“It truly does bring me energy to watch all the fun stuff going on,” he said.
In fact, it has lead him to become as engaged as he can – regularly attending events like 1 Million Cups, Startup Drinks, and other activities which place an emphasis on supporting local entrepreneurs.
“I don’t want people to make the same mistakes I did,” he said. “If I can act as a mentor and benefit startups and entrepreneurs… that’s where my interest lies.
Feature photo by Mark Staples.