Universal Nolin Company LLC, a three-division enterprise renowned for its world-class refrigeration products is bucking a recent trend: the South Carolina-based corporation is bringing jobs and production back home, and recently gave Spartanburg cause for celebration. Dan Harvey explains why.
Methodically placing together several puzzle parts, Universal Nolin Company LLC engineered a synergistic business alignment that benefits both the company and South Carolina manufacturing communities.
Starting in 2005, the Honea Path, S.C.-headquartered corporation pieced together three related enterprises beneath its banner. These include National Refrigeration Company, National Metal Craft Inc. and Universal Nolin Company LLC.
In December 2008, the Universal Nolin subsidiary (a manufacturer of commercial refrigeration equipment formerly known as National Cooler Company LLC), acquired the production lines and associated operating assets of Carrier Commercial Refrigeration, and then returned these elements back to Spartanburg, S.C., where they once belonged.
Previously, Carrier transferred the production capabilities – and the jobs – to Monterey, Mexico. Following its acquisition, Universal Nolin invested $10.6 million into a new Spartanburg facility. In the process, it has returned production to the state, generated jobs and began turning out products branded with the Universal Nolin name.
Today, Universal Nolin manufactures commercial refrigeration technology for the bottled beverage industry (specifically bottle coolers), and it enjoyed enormous satisfaction in restoring at least a portion South Carolina’s manufacturing heritage. “The Spartanburg area took a hit when Carrier transferred its operations to Mexico, so we’re very excited about bringing production and jobs back to a state that has been hurt by international outsourcing,” says Libby Fulmer, president of Universal Nolin.
As within other areas in the United States, South Carolina’s manufacturing industrial sector lost a significant number of jobs as companies became attracted to reduced costs related to the lower-wage foreign work force. “But we’re not only bringing jobs back. We’re also supporting U.S. industry by sourcing components and buying production parts within the country,” Fulmer adds. “The impact may be small and localized, but we’re playing a part. As we look ahead, we anticipate a strong future for both the company and the community.”
UNIQUE PRODUCT DESIGN
The vibrant future is assured, in large part, by the high level of the refrigeration equipment that Universal Nolin provides. “Right now, quality is generating great demand,” indicates Fulmer. “Customers prefer our bottle cooling models, as the equipment offers a unique cassette-based design, where the compressor and all operating parts are contained within a tray beneath the cooler.”
This design provides certain key benefits; the foremost involves maintenance and repair. As Fulmer points out, the cassette design provides improved serviceability. If something should go wrong, the units can be repaired efficiently and inexpensively. No field technician is required and customer service disruption is significantly minimized. “If a unit fails, all you have to do is pull out the cassette and simply install a new cartridge,” Fulmer explains. “There’s no downtime.”
Conversely, the older bottle cooling unit designs (those currently used by many competitors) are built on a platform, she adds. “If a unit goes down, it remains down until the necessary repairs can be made. As our cassettes contain all of the working parts, all anyone needs to do is pull the damaged one out and stick another one in. As such, the unit can be repaired right in the store, without any hazard to employees or the public.”
Beside the lower repair and life-cycle costs, the units are easy to clean and require less energy, which reduces operating costs. Reduced energy results from a micro-channel heat exchanger, which makes the unit operate much more efficiently than other industry models. As the company moves forward, it’s strongly focusing on that energy element. “We’re working on making all models Energy Star-certified to meet the newest and highest levels of energy efficiency,” Fulmer reports.
Energy Star certification comes through a joint program involving the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy. The program is designed to protect the environment by fostering the most cost- and energy-efficient products and practices.
Further, Universal Nolin units come with a foul-resistant condenser, which improves lint tolerance, as well as wickless condensate evaporation, standardized components and quiet operation. Company customers not only like the units; so do consumers. The ergonomically designed units, which come in single-, double- and triple-door and specialty cooler models, positions the bottled product at levels that offer better viewing and easier reach-in access. They also provide consistent product temperatures. In other words, the purchased beverage will be refreshingly cold.
With the units, Universal Nolin essentially acquired an existing market. “We purchased this innovative cassette design from Carrier, so that company had already established a customer base,” explains Fulmer. “However, Carrier, which decided to spread its focus across several different markets, had lost some of its market share in recent years. We’re making up for that lost ground by focusing 100-percent on this product and its market. Bottle cooler refrigeration for the beverage industry is all that we will do.”
A STORIED PAST
But that’s not all the parent company Universal Nolin focuses on. The versatile enterprise now manufactures the Kelvinator line of refrigeration technology, which includes both commercial and scientific equipment. Kelvinator boasts a 90-year heritage of innovation and success. The name honors the achievements of Baron Kelvin, a pivotal figure in the early history of refrigeration technology. Kelvin, as you may recall from academic textbooks, developed the absolute-zero concept. So his name not only lives on in the hugely successful product line but through the Kelvin temperature scale.
In 1914, Kelvinator became the first successful manufacturer of refrigerators and continually set industry standards for related products. Now beneath the Universal Nolin banner, the line is built in South Carolina by Universal Nolin, which distributes products on a domestic and international basis.
Kelvinator products represent the highest quality refrigeration equipment for the most demanding applications. Specific commercial equipment includes ice cream dipping cabinets, ice cream chest cabinets, flavor rail cabinets, drop-in cabinets, hardening cabinets, vertical and horizontal merchandising cabinets and storage cabinets.
The Kelvinator Scientific line, which was born in Detroit, Mich. In 1968, serves the clinical, research, biotech, industrial, government/military and water treatment industries. Some specific application categories include lab refrigerators and freezers, ultra-cold freezers, blood storage refrigerators and freezers, chromatography refrigerators, refrigerated incubators and walk-in rooms.
Universal Nolin also provides metal fabrication services for the manufacture of equipment parts. The division evolved when it purchased the assets of the Honea Path-based Morton Metalcraft Company in 2007. Previously, Morton Metalcraft served as a supplier. Now, these two businesses exist across the street from each other.
“One of the main reasons why Universal Nolin relocated the production back to South Carolina was to take advantage of the capabilities the other divisions offer,” says Fulmer. “The situation enables us to pull resources together. The sister companies support our production with painting and metal fabrication.”
FULL SPEED AHEAD
Today, Universal Nolin is operating at full throttle. “Following the acquisition and relocation, we began production in February 2009,” reports Fulmer. “To support the rapidly increasing demand from customers, we’re currently running two shifts, six days a week, to produce equipment that you’ll find installed in convenience stores and grocery stores throughout the United States.”
Those customers, she adds, are the largest bottled beverage companies in the United States: Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Dr. Pepper.
By early 2009, Universal Nolin employed about 150 Spartanburg-area residents. “But we envision that we’ll add more employees as we continue ramping up production,” says Fulmer.
Besides hiring more employees, Universal Nolin will be adding more production lines and new equipment to increase its output. The upgrades should be fully implemented by 2010, if not sooner, reports Fulmer. That should be the best news that Spartanburg has heard ever since Universal Nolin decided to bring production back home.