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Originally published Saturday, June 12, 2010 at 10:05 PM

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Connections make little-known company powerful

Maybe it's the suburban-Spokane headquarters or the behind-the-scenes business, but Itron is one of the most successful yet least-known...

Founded: 1977

Headquarters: Liberty Lake

Major operations: Automated meter-reading module operations in Minnesota; electricity meter operations in South Carolina; 55 other manufacturing and distribution facilities and 84 sales/administrative offices around the world

CEO: Malcolm Unsworth

Employees: 9,000

Major products/services: Meters and meter-reading systems for electricity, gas and water utilities

Average annual shareholder return, 2000-09: 27.3 percent

Maybe it's the suburban-Spokane headquarters or the behind-the-scenes business, but Itron is one of the most successful yet least-known (at least on this side of the Cascades) companies in Washington.

It was formed more than three decades ago as an offshoot of Washington Water Power (now Avista), making handheld utility-meter readers.

Later it introduced drive-by scanners, allowing utility workers to read meters without getting out of their vehicles.

Two big strategic moves solidified Itron's competitive position, said Ben Schuman, an analyst who follows the company for Pacific Crest Securities in Portland: the 2004 acquisition of Schlumberger's electricity-meter business and the purchase three years later of Luxembourg-based Actaris Metering Systems, also from Schlumberger.

As a result of those deals, Schuman said, Itron inherited relationships with utilities that in many cases went back decades, and gained the ability to integrate the meters with its meter-reading technologies.

"That allows them to pitch a fully integrated solution, and that's big for them," he said.

It also positions Itron to be a key player in the effort to bring the U.S. electricity grid, which in many places is about at the 1960s adding-machine or slide-projector level, fully into the Internet age.

By permitting two-way communication between utilities and their customers, smart-grid enthusiasts hope to make power providers more efficient and enable people to use less power, such as by timing their usage for off-peak hours. That, in turn, could free utilities from building new power plants and ultimately lower fossil-fuel use, combating global climate change.

Those enthusiasts include the Obama administration, which has made smart-grid technology a priority. The 2009 stimulus bill contained $4.5 billion for smart-grid investments.

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