Hot times in cooling tech
Munters relocates due to ‘explosive growth’
As far as problems go, this was a good one to have.
A year into his tenure as director of Virginia operations for Swedish manufacturer Munters Group AB, Brian Frost was seeing “explosive growth” in sales of data center cooling systems manufactured at the company’s facilities in Buena Vista and Natural Bridge.
Cooling equipment keeps data centers at an ideal temperature so that expensive technology doesn’t overheat. “A lot of our equipment is going to the big players,” Frost explains. “Unfortunately, contractually, I’m not allowed to use their names.”
To meet the demand, Frost needed more workers — welders, electricians, refrigeration specialists, assemblers and, most of all, general laborers. But he couldn’t find folks to hire. “It led us to bringing in outside contractors to fill the voids of head counts that we could not obtain,” he says.
Many of the contractors Munters hired, Frost noticed, hailed from the Roanoke Valley.
By mid-2020, Frost began seeking options. Should Munters expand its facility at Buena Vista? Or should the company move to an entirely new location?
If they moved, Frost didn’t want to lose their current employees, many of whom had received extensive training from the company.
“One thing that I’ve prided myself on is I’m big on professional development,” Frost says. “We can take an 18-year-old kid that has a desire to work [and] we will bring them in as a general laborer, and we will provide them with career paths … of how to get to a higher-paying job.”
Frost thought maybe the company could find a place to build that was no further than 30 miles from Buena Vista. “For us, the biggest key to success in this project was retention of our workforce,” he says.
Ultimately, Munters leadership decided to invest $36 million to relocate its Buena Vista operations to Botetourt County’s Botetourt Center at Greenfield, a business park in Daleville, approximately 45 minutes away.
The Roanoke Regional Partnership forecasts that the project will have a $93.5 million economic impact annually on the Roanoke region. “It is a blessing in every direction,” says Gary Larrowe, the Botetourt County administrator.
To woo Munters to Greenfield, Botetourt County provided a $10,000 per acre discount for purchased land and a credit of up to $150,000 for job training at a Virginia postsecondary education system.
If Munters hadn’t found the site at Greenfield, both Larrowe and John Hull, executive director of the Roanoke Regional Partnership, believe the company might have left the state.
“There were other states in consideration,” Hull says. “So it was a win for Virginia to retain the employer.”
Munters expects to move into the 365,000-square-foot build-to-suit Greenfield facility and be fully operational by the end of September.
Currently, the company has more than 250 employees in Virginia, according to Frost. He predicts about 99% of salaried employees and 80% of hourly employees will ultimately decide to follow the company to Greenfield. Frost also hopes to hire 40 to 50 additional manual laborers by the time the Greenfield facility opens.
Munters will lease the building from Alabama-based developer Graham & Co., which purchased about 30 acres at Greenfield from Botetourt County for $900,000, according to Larrowe.
When completed, the new building will include space for manufacturing, research and development, sales and an events center.
“It’s really going to be a showcase and a really strong addition to the corporate community in the Roanoke region,” Hull says.
Companywide, Munters has made a commitment to build energy- and resource-efficient production facilities. The Greenfield building was designed with that pledge in mind.
“This facility is actually going to be 100% solar-operated on a normal Virginia day,” Frost says. “It will have a vast solar array on the roof of this facility, and what that allows us to do is essentially be carbon-neutral on an average day in a Virginia climate.”
While the facility will be the first business at the Greenfield park powered by solar energy, Larrowe doesn’t think it’ll be the only one for long. “It takes people like Brian and Munters to jump in the pool to be able to actually show others what they can end up doing.”