A good fit
Workforce training was a selling point in landing Unison plant
The British company Unison Ltd. saw the creation of a U.S. manufacturing plant as part of its evolution. Putting that plant in the Danville area was a “no brainer,” says Julian Kidger, Unison’s joint managing director.
Founded in Scarborough, England, 44 years ago, Unison makes pipe-bending and automation machinery used in aerospace, automotive, marine, military, oil and gas and general engineering applications. It also writes software for machine control and advanced simulation of new part designs for customers.
Unison has sold machines in U.S. markets for more than a decade through agents. It opened its first direct-sales office for North America in North Carolina in September 2015. The next step was to establish a U.S. factory.
“Fifty to 70 percent of our sales are in the U.S. market,” says Kidger. “We are primarily growing in the U.S. Business there has been good to us.”
Unison began its search for a manufacturing location during the first quarter of last year, looking first at possible sites in North and South Carolina. The Danville Office of Economic Development made contact with the company during that time through some lead-generating consultants.
“We made two trips to their manufacturing facility in Scarborough, and they came here,” says Telly Tucker, Danville’s director of economic development. Danville and Pittsylvania County worked together on the project.
Unison appreciated the Danville region’s “very robust and professional approach — their commitment, financial support and the people we met,” says Kidger. “No other state came close regarding the whole package.”
The company felt the Danville area was ideal because of its central location on the East Coast. “We do installations north and south,” Kidger says, noting the majority of its customers are within a day’s drive of the area.
“It all made sense. What pushed things over was the team we met in Danville.”
One selling point that helped sway Unison was the Danville region’s investment in workforce training, most notably metalworking and precision manufacturing. “We have invested more than $30 million in workforce training in the last five to seven years,” Tucker says.
Unison has a history of participating in the development of future generations of engineers and scientists through the Advanced Manufacturing and Research Centre in Sheffield, England, and its own technology-based University Technical College in Scarborough, which will graduate its first students this year.
“Danville and Pittsylvania County’s desire to build their own advanced manufacturing skill sets was obvious to us,” Kidger says. “They were investing in their own technology education courses with skills we would require. We were impressed by what they achieved.”
The company will create its own training school in its Virginia facility. “We want to have an embedded educational facility to train tube bending from the novice through expert,” Kidger says, noting the company will partner with Troy Simpson, associate professor of precision machining technology at Danville Community College. “The school will be for use by DCC students and also our customers. We believe it to be the first school of its kind,” Kidger says.
Unison now is conducting its first round of hiring in Virginia. It has already moved into its 40,000-square-foot building in the Cane Creek Centre Industrial Park, jointly owned by the City of Danville and Pittsylvania County.
“We will begin by growing our sales, marketing and service with a total headcount of 10 by the end of year one and then will phase in assembly and manufacturing of our machines over the next two years,” Kidger says.
“We intend to employ 35 people by the end of year three and 55 by the end of year five.”
The Virginia Economic Development Partnership worked with the City of Danville, Pittsylvania County and Southern Virginia Regional Alliance to secure the Unison project, which represented a total investment of $5.2 million. The Dan River Region also received a $105,000 grant from the Commonwealth’s Opportunity Fund to assist with the deal.
In addition, the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission approved $330,000 in Tobacco Region Opportunity Funds. Unison is eligible to receive state benefits from the Virginia Enterprise Zone Program as well as funding and services to support its employee training activities through the Virginia Jobs Investment Program.
The Unison project is ideal for the region, says Tucker. “It supports and validates many of the investments we have made.”