Mike Smith wore his heavy wool topcoat on Tuesday, the perfect thing for a day that started out fine but turned increasingly cold and damp.
"Don't you ever wear the wrong thing to work?" he was asked.
"As a matter of fact, I don't," he replied.
That tells you a couple of things about Mike Smith. He and the weather are on intimate terms. And, he's pretty confident in his judgments — which helps if you're a weatherman by profession.
Smith, 59, founder of WeatherData, which turns 30 this year, is one of Wichita's best known weathermen. He was the on-air meteorologist at KSN from 1975 until 1993, with a few years off in the '80s, and remains one of the most quoted weather experts locally.
He sold WeatherData in 2006 to Accu-Weather but remains CEO.
WeatherData specializes in forecasting and issuing extreme-weather alerts for businesses and other organizations — such as school systems — across the nation and beyond.
The business continues to grow, Smith said. Revenue is more than twice what it was 10 years ago. 2010 was a record year, he said.
That's because, he said, WeatherData delivers more-accurate and better-tailored weather information to clients than the TV news or the National Weather Service. The company said its client renewal rate was 98 percent last year.
"If they didn't believe in it, they wouldn't keep renewing," he said.
It's also because Smith sells that product with story after story. One example:
In 2008, a Caterpillar plant in Oxford, Miss., was hit by a tornado. The company is a client of WeatherData, so meteorologists tracked a developing storm and delivered a tornado warning. Eighty-eight employees were moved to shelter. Twenty-two minutes later, the plant was demolished.
The National Weather Service alert went into effect four minutes after the plant was hit, he said.
Better than free
As a business, WeatherData faces a huge potential problem: It competes directly with the National Weather Service, which provides free forecasts and extreme-weather warnings.
It's hard to compete with free, as many businesses have found out with the arrival of the Internet.
But Smith contends that, when it matters most to clients, he provides something different and better than the National Weather Service.
He has a staff of 14 meteorologists who sit in front of screens every hour of every day watching the never-ending parade of weather. They look for the telltale patterns of developing severe weather.
They use proprietary software that integrates several sources of data, including the same information used by the National Weather Service.
He employs seven programmers to develop his ideas, writing the specialized software needed to stay ahead of the competition. Smith said he holds 18 patents here and abroad.
"It's an easier sell than it used to be," he said. "Business is more vulnerable than it used to be."
Businesses have come to rely on more precise, always-on systems to improve efficiency. Disruption is more costly than ever. The companies are paying for a few extra minutes of warning every year or two or three.
He tells the story of two automobile factories in Kentucky practicing just-in-time supply. One was a client and got a few days' warning of an impending ice storm. It stacked extra supplies in the parking lot. The other was not a client, was iced in without supplies and had to shut down. The owner of the second factory, he said, with a trace of glee in his voice, is now a client.
But, Smith said, his meteorologists can see things that the National Weather Service can't because of additional data and the way their software tailors the information for particular clients. And the WeatherData meteorologists scan the entire country looking for severe weather, while National Weather Service meteorologists focus on all the weather for a particular area.
His guys, Smith said, are the experts.
"These guys see this thousands of times," Smith said. "They get really good at it."
Smith spoke to the Rotary Club of West Wichita on Tuesday.
After he set up the equipment for his presentation, he made small talk with the arriving Rotarians.
"Mike, did you bring this weather with you?" asked one member.
"I always tell people I'm in marketing, not production," Smith said, with a practiced reply and a practiced smile.
Weather is his profession and his passion. He never really gets tired of talking about it.
Neither, he said, do most other Kansans. He's stopped constantly by people with a question or theory. But, unlike most people for whom weather is a vaguely understood fact of life, Smith has an precise and encyclopedic knowledge of severe-weather incidents and details at the tip of his tongue.
"I can't always remember my kids' names, but I can remember the date of every tornado in the United States," he said.
All of which is delivered in a natural, smooth, rich broadcast voice.
The only time talking about the weather grates on Smith? When somebody accuses him of blowing a forecast that turns out to be one from a local TV station.
"Yeah, that really bugs me," he said.
Smith makes the case that advances in meteorology have reduced death rates in recent years more than any other science, through advanced warnings for tornadoes, hurricanes, flash floods and other severe weather.
Without adequate warnings, he said, the Greensburg tornado would have meant more than 240 deaths, instead of the 11 recorded.
Hurricane Katrina saw 1,836 deaths and more missing, he said, but it would have been many tens of thousands had there not been the warnings.
His talk at the Rotary Club was about how meteorologist Ted Fujita of the University of Chicago discovered how downbursts caused jet airliners to crash during thunderstorms. Smith, who confirmed the phenomenon during a 1978 thunderstorm near Andover, helped write the guide that airlines now use to help pilots survive downbursts.
Even so, he said, the public undervalues meteorology.
"You don't think about what didn't happen," he said. "You don't think about the plane that didn't crash. We're very proud of that."
He wrote a book released in 2009 called "Warnings: The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather," about the growth of modern meteorology.
Smith is a natural entrepreneur who has taken his passion for science and applied it to business to create something unique for 30 years.
"My special gift," he said, "is to take science and turn it into something useful."