As global demand for saunas rises, a 72-year-old company in rural Finland is turning up the heat.
Water hisses as it hits 120kg of hot stones in the Harvia Legend sauna heater, placed in the middle of the wood-panelled room to dissipate the heat evenly. Things are getting steamy in the city of Jyväskylä, the spiritual home of the Finnish sauna. There are saunas almost everywhere; this one, for instance, is on the top floor of a nondescript high-rise building. It’s 85c inside but jyp Jyväskylä ice-hockey player Patrik Siikanen wants it hotter. He grabs a bucket of water and starts dousing the heater. Siikanen and his team-mates Joakim Kemell, Jerry Turkulainen and Aleksi Salonen (pictured, from left, with Siikanen) do this several times a week, often coming to this public sauna for the views over Lake Jyväsjärvi. The tradition helps them to recover from matches and training sessions, they say. “We have a few foreign players in the team and they have fallen in love with the sauna too,” says Turkulainen.
They’re not alone in their passion for the Finnish sauna. The maker of the heater, Harvia, is based in the municipality of Muurame, about 15km from where the ice-hockey players are sitting. Despite being headquartered in this unassuming rural setting, Harvia is an ambitious national and international brand, selling between 230,000 and 300,000 sauna heaters a year, as well as about 20,000 sauna units.
Founded in 1950, Harvia is now one of the world’s biggest sauna companies. Its portfolio includes 20 different product families of sauna heaters, both electric and wood-burning. Harvia also makes various types of saunas for both indoor and outdoor use.
“We have seen more and more individuals committed to taking responsibility for their health. As individuals embrace preventative care, interest in saunas has soared”
“These are products for which the build quality is the decisive factor,” says Arto Harvia, the company’s product group manager. “In addition to the extremely high temperatures, they need to withstand constant high humidity and water being thrown on them.”
Harvia has worked in the r&d team of the company that his relatives founded for most of his career. “We have more than 70 years of experience in optimising elements such as the quality and type of the stones used, as well as the correct ventilation and design that ensure an even heat dissipation,” he says. Take, for example, Legend 300, Harvia’s flagship wood-burning heater. It needs to be able to hold as much as 260kg of hot stones that can reach temperatures exceeding 300c. The brand’s electric heaters, such as the Harvia Globe, are complicated machines that have more than 100 components.
The heaters are manufactured at the company’s Muurame facility. When monocle visits, Harvia has just opened a state-of-the-art extension to its factory that houses a Prima Power laser cutter to make steel parts for its heaters. Much of the assembly work is still done by hand by the more than 150 staff on the factory floor. The company’s ceo, Tapio Pajuharju, takes us to a showroom displaying Harvia’s latest innovations. Sitting on the upper deck of an unheated electric sauna, he details the company’s growth. “We have nearly quadrupled our turnover since 2014,” he says. Much of this is the result of strategic acquisitions, entering new markets, offering both complete saunas and components, and revamping the company’s brand message.
More than 70 per cent of Harvia’s turnover still comes from European countries, such as Finland and Germany, where sauna bathing is a longstanding tradition. But the company is gaining a foothold in North America, where it grew by 80 per cent in 2020. “We’ve seen more and more individuals committed to taking responsibility for their health,” says Don Genders, ceo of UK-based Design for Leisure and chair of the Florida-based Global Wellness Institute’s Hydrothermal Initiative. “As individuals embrace preventative care, interest in saunas has soared.” According to Genders, there is now a sauna boom in the US. “A recent study predicted that the US market has the potential to be valued at $500m [€440m] by 2027,” he says. Under Pajuharju’s leadership, Harvia has changed its slogan to “Healing with heat” to underscore the health benefits of using a sauna.
The boom is not limited to the US. “We’re talking about a €3bn global market that’s growing between 5 and 10 per cent a year,” says Petri Kajaani, who analyses consumer goods companies at the Helsinki-based firm Inderes. “As a Finnish heritage company Harvia has a strong brand and roots in sauna culture. More importantly, it has a wide portfolio of high-quality products that are easy to assemble and affordable for the average consumer. More than 60 per cent of the global sauna market’s revenues come from replacement demand, which makes it a resilient sector, and Harvia is the top brand here.”
It’s tempting to think that Harvia can just sit back and enjoy the boom. But Pajuharju insists that innovation is crucial. “We have more saunas per capita in Finland than anywhere else in the world so it’s a good yardstick to see how saunas develop,” he says. “In 10 years, Finnish saunas have changed a lot. Mood lighting and better safety have been introduced; pillar-shaped heaters have replaced wall heaters.” Adapting to demand, Harvia has introduced electric heaters that can be remotely controlled with a smartphone, while its Greenflame wood-burning heaters produce 70 per cent less carbon monoxide emissions than other similarly sized heaters.
As the market grows, cultural differences are becoming more apparent. “You only need to travel to Germany to see that its sauna culture is very different from ours in Finland,” says Pajuharju. “Germans lie down and control the temperature and time meticulously, whereas Finns are more nonchalant.” The Finnish way to enjoy the sauna, says Pajuharju, is in high temperatures, for periods of an hour or more, which can feel extreme to many. “We’re proud to have Finland as our place of origin but we want to make saunas for all cultures.”
But the four hockey players in their high-rise sauna are convinced that the only way is Finnish. “I’ve been to some saunas abroad where you can’t even throw water onto the hot stones,” says Salonen. “That’s the whole point of the sauna, what we Finns call löyly.” The friends agree that a wood-burning sauna offers the best löyly, due to the combination of humidity and heat. “And the sauna needs to be by a lake so you can take a dip to cool off,” adds Siikanen. “The sauna is about more than just physical relaxation; it’s for the mind too. And it’s about enjoying something together.”
For the ice-hockey players, life without a sauna isn’t fathomable. But not just any sauna. In Jyväskylä, nothing but the pride of the town will do. It has to be a Harvia.
Harvia by numbers
Number of employees:
Average cost of a Harvia sauna:
Entire unit €6,000 Heater €500
Components in average electric heater:
More than 100
North America 14%
Other European countries 28%