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Sunday, December 11, 2005

Spire Solar (SPIR) an industry leader

Solar firm sees hike in photovoltaic panel demand

By Davis Bushnell, Globe Correspondent

BEDFORD -- High prices for oil and natural gas are helping the worldwide solar-energy market perk up after years of spotty performance. And no one is more pleased with this development than Roger G. Little, founder and chief executive of Spire Corp. of Bedford, a small but significant player in that market.

''Our industry grew by 62 percent last year, but there have been a lot of bumps in the road to where we are today," Little said in a recent interview at company headquarters.

''The strength of our company, though, has come from diversity," he added, noting that diversity is also something he knows about as a world-class triathlete.

Spire, whose revenues have increased for each of the last five years, albeit with some losses, is currently engaged in three business areas: photovoltaics, or the solar-energy platform on which the company was started in 1969; optoelectronics, or semiconductor development related to light, with applications for the telecommunications and defense industries; and biomedical products, as a maker of orthopedic-device coatings and catheters.

Because of high energy prices, Little said, Spire is now experiencing a significant pickup in equipment orders from corporate customers worldwide that are increasing their manufacturing capacity for making solar panels.

Making solar equipment for petroleum companies like BP PLC and the Shell Group, which, in turn produce solar panels for consumer and commercial uses, accounts for 50 percent of Spire's annual revenues, Little said.

Revenues in 2004 totaled $17.3 million, up from $15.8 million in 2003.

The biomedical products, made for companies like Stryker Corp. and Boston Scientific Corp., generate 30 percent of the revenues. In addition to catheters, which are top-selling products, Little said, the company makes coatings for orthopedic devices used, for example, for hip and knee replacements.

Optoelectronics devices, produced for defense contractors such as Raytheon Co., BAE Systems PLC, and ITT Corp., represent the balance of the revenues. These custom products typically use advanced laser and infrared technologies, he said.

''Spire's been around for a long time, and it's good to see them showing a strong upswing now," said Russell Landon, who follows the Bedford company's solar business for the Boston investment firm Adams, Harkness &Hill. Landon is a managing director of the firm.

When he founded Spire 36 years ago, Little steered the company, as an Air Force contractor, into making solar cells for satellites.

''Then in the late 1970s, we became involved in bringing these cells down to earth, literally, for consumer and commercial applications," said Little, a 1964 graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who also lives in Bedford. ''We became an early leader in making solar modules for these markets."

Until, that is, large corporations, like the giant energy companies, moved into that arena. ''We then said, 'We'll make the equipment for them so that they can turn out the [solar] panels and so forth.' "

After the oil crisis of the 1970s faded, so did the solar market's prospects, Little said, adding, ''We then had to look at ways of diversifying."

All went well, he pointed out, until about five years ago, when ''all three of our business units began suffering from declining markets." In 2002, the optoelectronics business was sold to a Chicago telecommunications firm, Methode.

Two years later, however, the Chicago firm's executives asked Little whether he would take back the business. ''I said I'd be glad to, and this business, now based in Hudson, N.H., is also growing."

For its 2005 third-quarter results, announced Nov. 14, Spire reported revenues of $4.5 million, a 20 percent increase over the same quarter a year earlier. However, there was a net loss of $1.4 million for the 2005 quarter, or 20 cents a share, compared with a net loss of $1.8 million, or 26 cents a share, for the 2004 quarter.

Little attributed the third-quarter loss this year to a ''decrease in solar system revenues."

Net income for the nine months of this year, though, were $1.7 million, or 24 cents a share, compared with a net loss of $1.9 million, or 28 cents a share, for the comparable 2004 period.

Spire shares are traded on the Nasdaq market. The company, which has 120 employees, most of them in Bedford, went public in 1983. Last year, Little received a salary of $203,732 and a bonus of $14,660.

Through all the ups and downs of his company and the industries it serves, Little said he has never doubted his reasons for becoming an entrepreneur. ''I wanted my career to be very involved in a scientific way."

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About Spire Solar:

Solar Photovoltaics, the direct conversion of sunlight into electricity, is a rapidly growing technology and increasingly important source of power. Spire Corporation is the world's leading supplier of the manufacturing equipment and technology needed to manufacture solar photovoltaic power. Spire's manufacturing equipment and SPI-LINE™ turn-key production lines are designed to meet the needs of everyone from small manufactures relying on mostly manual processes to the largest photovoltaic manufacturing companies in the world. Approximately 80% of the 2004 world photovoltaic module production came from factories furnished with units of Spire equipment.

Spire's mission is to help our customers capitalize on growing markets for solar energy by offering the highest quality products and unparalleled support.

Spire also offers a full range of services including solar cell and module materials supply, management and marketing support and systems design and engineering. Of course, all of Spire's products and services come standard with our unparalleled customer support.

Whether Spire is helping establish a new photovoltaic business in the developing world, or researching new technologies and processes for high volume production, our staff of internationally recognized experts never forgets that we are only as successful as our customers.

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