- Location: Duluth, Minn.
- 2009 Revenue: "low millions"
- CEO: Greg Benson
Renovated Burial-Vault Plant Gives New Life to Midwestern Manufacturer
For $63 a square foot, three entrepreneurs get a highly flexible space that helps drive 278% revenue growth.
Duluth, Minn.—After buying a defunct burial-vault manufacturing facility as the site for their new headquarters, Greg Benson and his two entrepreneur partners joked that the concrete caskets remaining behind on the site might be theirs if the purchase of this unorthodox location on the shores of Lake Superior didn’t work out.
Total revenue up 278% since moving in
Energy costs at former facility: 0.86% of revenue; at new facility: 0.64%
Named one of Minnesota’s 50 best employers
But instead of killing the business, the rehabilitated factory has become a key catalyst in the trio’s success—and in their remarkable ability to launch radically different product lines without having to significantly change their workspace.
Benson and younger brother Dave, along with friend Tony Ciardelli, are the executives behind the two distinct businesses that now operate out of the restored concrete-form factory: Loll Designs, maker of environmentally friendly outdoor furniture; and Epicurean, which manufactures professional cutting surfaces from recycled materials.
Both firms, with a total of 35 employees, do brisk business online and in upscale retail stores across the United States and in 44 countries. While the elder Benson declines to reveal the privately held ventures’ exact revenue, he says business is up 278 percent since moving into the new space in 2005—even though their actual manufacturing square footage is 5,000 square feet smaller than what it was in their previous home (itself an unconventional space, an old missile base in Duluth, affectionately dubbed the “tree fort”).
The partners formed their first business in 1997: TrueRide, a manufacturer of municipal skate ramps from high-tech fiber composites. As TrueRide expanded, the company grew weary of constantly reshaping its 25,000 square feet of office and production space at the old missile base.
“When you have a lot of walls, it’s hard to add people,” says Benson. “The space was like a skin that we outgrew each year, and sloughing it required a lot of cost and energy that should have been used in conducting business, not reshaping office and shop space.”
So the partners began a search for a space that would be more accommodating to their entrepreneurial, ever-evolving approach to their business. They settled on the closed burial-vault plant and hired Duluth-based Salmela Architect in 2004 to convert the 80-year-old factory into a workshop and office facility that would be as flexible as the owners themselves.
David Salmela, principal of Salmela, says the site “was a complete mess when I first saw it.” Reusing the facility first required an estimated $350,000 cleanup of debris and petroleum-laden soil; the city of Duluth covered $80,000 of it to encourage the firm’s relocation there, says Benson.
The four-acre site, in a state-designated tax-free zone, also exempted the firm from property taxes for three years as long as it generated growth and new employment, says Benson. The socially responsible entrepreneurs no longer qualify for the tax exemptions, but are satisfied to now be helping to bolster Duluth’s ailing coffers. “The city needs it,” he says.
For only $63 per square foot, Salmela Architect renovated the existing, 14,200-square-foot vault building, added a 5,000 square-foot cantilevered office above it, and inserted some of the discarded burial vaults into the landscape to create view-enhancing artificial hills.
Inside the open office space, the clients helped execute Salmela’s vision, building their own desks, installing custom-designed Finland birch flooring and cladding the office structure with the same maintenance-reducing recycled material used to build their skate-park ramps. The open floorplan maximizes corporate communication, efficiency and flexibility, says Benson. "We can have eye contact," he says.
Glass end-walls and overhead doors maximize light and openness on the factory floor and allow employees to enjoy sweeping views of the lake and the St. Louis River valley. The site’s amenities, including outdoor work space and hiking trails, helped Benson’s enterprises gain a spot this year among Minnesota Monthly magazine’s 50 best employers.
Even with all this glass, the facility is more energy efficient than its predecessor—critical in a location where winter temperatures often dip well below zero, says Benson. In summer, operating windows replace air conditioning. And infrared heat used in the shop “heats objects and not the air,” he adds. Energy costs, according to Benson, are now 0.64 percent of gross revenue, down from 0.86 percent in the old facility, a 25 percent reduction.
“The solution responds to the client’s workplace values of openness, equality and love of nature,” says Salmela.
The solution also has responded exceptionally well to the founders’ zeal for reinvention. In 2007, they decided to sell TrueRide to focus on their two current ventures, Epicurean and Loll Designs, both of which use the same materials as the skate parks.
The open floorplan space, designed from the outset to be highly flexible, was able to handle this shift in production with minimal changes. And when the economy turns, Benson also envisions being able to add additional manufacturing space with little interruption to his business.
In addition to being highly adaptable, the space also helps with branding the businesses. “Every one who comes here says what a cool building this is,” Benson says. “And when clients come to our facility, they get an immediate sense of who we are and that we’re serious about what we do.”