Honorable Mention: Bob Baron
Bob Dylan was right; you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. What you really need is a meteorologist equipped with Baron Services' storm-tracking technology. The company's signature 3-D VIPIR system uses Doppler radar to pinpoint atmospheric disturbances right down to the neighborhood block. That proved especially handy during last September's fierce Floridian storms. Jason Kelley, a former Baron employee who now works for WJHG, a Panama City TV station, relied on Baron data during Hurricane Ivan, when he remained on-air for 11 continuous, commercial-free hours. "There is no doubt in my mind that Baron Services helped save lives," he says.
Baron's tools are popular with weathermen in part because Bob Baron, the company's 60-year-old founder, knows firsthand what members of the trade need. Prior to starting the company in 1990, Baron spent 18 years as a TV weatherman, primarily in Huntsville, Ala. His life took a turn in 1989 when a tornado devastated the unsuspecting city, killing at least 21 and causing more than $100 million in damage. "It was a seminal moment where I thought we were prepared, but what we had were pretty pictures, not actual tools," he recalls. "People found out about the tornado from a policeman on a two-way radio."
Galvanized after the storm, Baron pushed ahead with developing a system for gathering accurate localized weather information. He used a grant from NASA to get access to their lightning-detection network to collect data (lightning patterns help pinpoint where the most dangerous atmospheric conditions and weather patterns are). That led to building a "Rube Goldberg-type of thing" that sent data over a modem to a local FM station on a lower, hidden signal. In this way, up-to-the-minute information could be widely disseminated even during the most severe weather. With this innovation, Baron began to see that storm tracking was not only feasible and useful, but economically viable.
Today Baron Services, based in Huntsville, is constantly evolving and expanding. It now has three divisions, 18 unique products, and 20 patents. A separate Baron-owned company has teamed up with XM satellite to deliver up-to-the-minute weather patterns to pilots, boat captains, and storm geeks. Baron's gone global as well; Lockheed Martin partnered with the firm to do a total upgrade of Romania's national weather service. No matter how big the company becomes, however, Baron wants it to remain focused on helping imperiled communities. To that end, 37 of the 65 employees assisted meteorologists in the field during the hurricanes last fall, all on the company dime. "Like the old joke goes," says Baron, "the most difficult forecast is the next one."