Seeding Fargo Growth

Oct. 8, 2003

By Jodi Prill

Seeding Fargo Growth

Brothers use synergies to expand businesses and promote North Dakota region

FARGO , ND — For some, the 1996 Coen brothers' movie of the same name put this city on the map. However, the Sweeney brothers, James and Patrick, who call this agriculturally minded area (wheat fields surrounding the airport are still farmed) home, are working to expand its presence on the aviation map through two of their partnerships. Out of Weather Modification, Inc. (WMI), they established the Fargo Jet Center and continue to expand both businesses by playing off the synergies of a cloud seeding business and a fixed base operation.

Jim Sweeney, along with his brother Patrick, operate the Fargo Jet Center and Weather Modification, Inc., among other businesses, out of this Fargo facility.

Jim Sweeney, president and VP of Fargo Jet Center and WMI, respectively, never thought he'd move back to his hometown of Fargo , ND . After receiving a business degree in marketing from the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks , he worked in the commercial insurance industry in both Boston and Minneapolis . It was his brother Patrick Sweeney, ten years Jim's senior, who was able to lure him back to the region.

"Patrick was involved with Weather Modification, Inc. since college," Jim explains. "He was a radar and electrical technician." Patrick bought into the company and after the founder's retirement in the early ’90s, he bought out the remaining stock and convinced Jim to return to North Dakota .

WMI has been performing cloud seeding and atmospheric research around the world since the 1960s. It was originally based in Western North Dakota, but Pat decided to move it back to Fargo and build a facility at Hector International Airport to house this company and a new FBO.

"The Red River Valley has done a great job of expanding its business mix," Jim relates. "This is a city that's prosperous and progressive from an economic standpoint."


In 1993, the Sweeneys began working with the airport authority to develop what is now called the North General Aviation Area, which according to Jim, was already part of the airport's master plan. The airport built a new ramp and in 1995, Fargo Jet Center and Weather Modification, Inc. opened the doors of their new facility.

There was another FBO on the south end of the field which Jim says was operating out of WWII hangars and buildings. "They didn't know what a red carpet was." Upon announcement of Sweeney's plan, the south field FBO jumped into the picture and built a larger, more elaborate facility next door to the Fargo Jet Center , according to Sweeney.

"We competed head to head with them for a little over five years," says Jim. "Gradually, over that five-year period, we started acquiring more and more market share and in December ’01 we got a phone call from the owner and he said he'd like to sell everything."

Fargo Jet Center subsequently purchased all of the assets of the competing FBO, including buildings, aircraft, and other equipment. Along with the purchase came Waypoint Avionics, which has bases at Fargo and Bismarck.

"The market in Fargo is not big enough for two FBOs to operate," Jim says. "But you won't find the facilities we have here at any other airport of our size. The entire complex that we own and operate today is a real asset to the community."

The Sweeneys own or lease more than 170,000 square feet of buildings at the airport, with the average lease being 20 years in length. Jim explains there are multiple leases, depending on when they were entered into, but he says they are looking into bringing them all under one lease. "It would give us the stability and ability to plan ahead and know that we're going to have these buildings."

Fargo Jet Center is a full-service, 24-hour FBO that provides flight training, charter, and is an FAA-approved repair station. Randy Jensen, CFO, says half of the FBO's revenue is from line service, including fuel and hangaring; 20 percent from maintenance; 20 percent from charter; and 10 percent from flight instruction. The Jet Center pumped 1.6 million gallons of fuel in 2002.


Weather Modification, Inc. has grown to be the largest cloud seeding company in the world, Jim says, and currently has operations all over the world. The business is almost ten times larger than it was a decade ago.

Jim estimates that there is some $10 million in airport, federal, and private money invested in the North Airpark. "And today, virtually all the private investment is ours; and it's a huge investment. It's really a result of Weather Modification, Inc. and the significant growth it's had over the years. It's the way we've been able to fund the expansion of the Jet Center ."

In the cloud seeding process, microscopic particles of silver iodide are dispensed into cloud development, explains Jim. There's liquid in the atmosphere that needs something to act as a nucleus to adhere to and to encourage it to fall to the ground earlier.

"So basically what we're doing is dispensing artificial nuclei into developing clouds," says Jim. "And so we modify the aircraft to dispense these materials and have sophisticated computers on board that track and record all of work so that we can demonstrate where we've worked and how effective it's been."

WMI also has the ability to suppress hail for insurance and agricultural purposes.

One example he offers involves a group of insurance companies in Calgary , Alberta . "We protect them from hail damage all summer long, during their hail season. If storms are developing that have the potential to produce hail in that region — our meteorologists are watching it 24 hours a day — they will launch an aircraft, dispense silver iodide into the clouds, which makes them rain out and not have a chance to develop into powerful storms."

For years Calgary was experiencing damaging hail storms which resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars of damage. WMI has been working with the insurance companies for eight years now, and the companies estimate that they are saving $50 million annually on hail damage claims.

When conditions are right, WMI is very successful in encouraging rain or reducing hail. There must be growth updraft and super-cooled liquid water in the cloud — moisture that is not in the form of an ice crystal or rain drop.

The silver iodide is dropped onto the clouds or deposited below and then sucked up into the clouds by burning as a flare or mixing in a solution.

Scientists engaged in this activity are able to determine if a cloud is suitable through laser probes which are mounted under the wing of the aircraft. "These measure particles that are passing through the laser beam," explains Jim. "[The scientist] can identify before, during, and after the seeding process how the makeup of the cloud is changing."

Jim says WMI is also doing work in India , Idaho , North Dakota , and Argentina , among other locations. In the instance of Argentina , WMI was hired by the government and is actually training them in the cloud seeding technology so they will eventually be capable of operating their own program. While many companies would see this as a threat to its core business, Jim disagrees because WMI has the opportunity to serve as consultants and suppliers of the cloud seeding technology. All of the hardware used in cloud seeding is manufactured in-house, save for the probes.


Jim sees extreme synergy between WMI and Fargo Jet Center , and explains that the FBO really evolved through WMI. "Weather Modification had aircraft and mechanics, so it was easy on our part to enter into the FBO business. It allows us the ability to really utilize our people and their skills and our equipment."

Many of the companies' 35 aircraft can be used for cloud seeding and when that job is done, are refurbished and put on the FBO's charter certificate or used to haul cargo. Jim says to transform a Learjet to a cloud seeding plane, all but two seats are removed, a computer is installed, and devices are attached to the wings for depositing the silver iodide. He says it's more cost-effective than purchasing dedicated aircraft for cloud seeding and charter.

Additionally, WMI is Fargo Jet Center 's largest customer.

As for future growth, Jim sees the FBO continuing to establish a name for itself in the region and in the world. "It's an ideal stop for international traffic," he says. "A G4 can go to London nonstop from Fargo ."