For many months we’ve watched them roll out of the converted office space on the first floor of our office building here in Norcross, Ga.: Mysterious large pieces of equipment, wheeled carefully into the back of a waiting Ryder truck.
A mish-mash of precision saws, drills and other mechanical and electronic tools could be glimpsed through the door by the staircase climbers and smokers who tend to use the building’s side entrance. Activity was literally bursting outside the doors of the 14,000-sq.-ft. (1,300-sq.-m.) space, and it turns out the company using that space, NanoLumens, was growing even more rapidly than it appeared.
On Oct. 25 the manufacturer and marketer of flexible and non-flexible digital displays announced plans to relocate its world headquarters to a new 32,000-sq.-ft. (2,973-sq.-m.) office center elsewhere in Norcross, the Gwinnett County city the company has called home since its founding in 2006. The company says it plans to help create 175 jobs in the area over the next two years, not all of them at the company itself.
“Our company has more than doubled in size over the last two years and we expect 2012, our first full year of commercial production, to create an even faster rate of growth,” said NanoLumens President and CEO Rick Cope. “This new headquarters will enable us to comfortably grow and meet our customer demands. It will allow us to consolidate all administrative, sales, operations, research, design, and assembly under one roof right here in the city we have always called home. What’s more, the new headquarters will house the largest digital display showroom in the country.”
The next day, wandering into the open office/workshop door downstairs, I found Cope conferring with two of his staff members about plans for a piece of equipment getting set to roll out that same door and up the ramp of the Ryder truck. The former Marine Corps officer looked none to happy at the interloper. But we later arranged an appointment. As with many site searches, he says, one driver was the fact that the lease was up. But company fortunes are up as well, mainly because its products are up on walls ... if they're not the entire walls themselves.
Since its founding in 2006, NanoLumens has built a portfolio of more than 20 international families of issued and filed patents on its flexible display technology that it says address the commercial market void between relatively small flat-panel displays and “huge, limited application LED boards.” The company’s technology has been recognized by Entrepreneur magazine as a 2011 future-proof tech trend and was cited by The Wall Street Journal in its 2010 Technology Innovations Awards. NanoLumens’ technology also received the 2011 Breakthrough Technology of the Year Award at the American Technology Awards. And in late December the company was awarded Digital Signage Magazine’s 2011 DIGI Award for its 112” NanoFlex® display.
So it comes as no surprise that display space was criterion number one in the site search. Well, maybe not absolutely number one.
“We looked in a 10-mile [16-km.] radius,” says Cope. “In the end, it all revolved around where the CEO lives. Look at a Fortune 500 company — when a CEO comes on, within five years it moves to where he lives. I live in Duluth, my daughter goes to [private high school] Wesleyan, so we’re not going very far. Frankly, all the people who work here don’t want me having an hour ride to work.”
The corner of Norcross where the company resides, though, is indeed “a great place to be,” he says. “The economy, housing, schools, shopping, all in a 10-mile circle.”
Okay, back to criterion No.1-a.
“First of all, the vision was to create a showroom,” Cope says, “so we could bring the monthly meeting of architects in Atlanta there. We ended up with a 60-foot by 100-foot showroom, large enough for five to 10 or 15 differently shaped displays on a curve, at an angle and at the other end, with couches, chairs, a kitchen, sketch pads.”
The operative phrase in the NanoLumens universe is “digital wallpaper,” as in displays covering exhibition space at trade shows or greeting clients in a corporate headquarters lobby. The operative idea with the space is to get architects to unleash their imaginations on all the things they could do with it — cover ceilings and floors, go around curves …
“In our site selection we looked for facility that, when you first walked up, didn’t have too much of an industrial look,” says Cope, with a larger, more open aesthetic feel. The new space has two glassed-in conference rooms off the reception area, with a large desk and wall, and a high ceiling. “The first impression is ‘This is a different place. I didn’t expect to see this in Norcross,’ ” says Cope. “Then you go around the corner and directly into the showroom, filled with stuff with the purpose of engaging your brain and what could be.”
‘Where Site Selection Meets Reality’
Cope says his team looked at more than 100 properties.
“We needed 16-foot ceilings to hang big displays from,” explains Cope. “We wanted a big space with no columns in it. That’s hard to find. And we wanted a stand-alone building, preferably, to secure the building and make it ours.”
Then the rubber hit the road. Somewhat abruptly.
“We narrowed it down to a couple dozen, went through them again with a fine-toothed comb, and then started negotiations. That’s where site selection meets reality. A bunch of buildings are owned by monolithic trust organizations — one wanted a half-million-dollar bond before we moved in — one of these faceless idiot organizations. But the one we found was started by an individual who moved a company to the building, bought the building and sold the company. Because of the entrepreneurial bond, we created a very flexible lease arrangement, where we could execute our vision, but with him understanding and working with us.
“It’s a shame there aren’t more individual building owners out there,” he adds. “It puts a real dampener on entrepreneurs’ ability to execute a dream, when you run up against a REIT or a bank.”
Inside the new home, sales, marketing, engineering and development personnel will work side by side. The firm has grown from 12 to 25 people, and anticipates more growth.
“We wanted to fill this space over time, and we don’t want to move again in five years,” says Cope. “So it needs to feel comfortable with a few people, but have room to add more without feeling crowded.” Moreover, the NanoLumens team needed R&D space, room to build and test prototypes, and space for warehousing, shipping and receiving, with level docks with roll-ups.
Where will all those other new jobs occur? Cope explains that the displays are built by contract manufacturing in nearby Suwanee, just a few miles away. He declines to name the company, but says the arrangement allows for flexibility and excellence to be achieved by both entities.
Published reports confirm that one partner company is Sienna Corp., an electronics manufacturing services firm which maintains its headquarters and a 100,000-sq.-ft. (9,290-sq.-m.) plant in neighboring Suwanee, as well as other manufacturing plants in its former home of Fremont, Calif.; Chicago and Chennai, India, where it has four plants in the Madras Export Processing Zone. The Suwanee location last expanded in 2010 with an $8-milllion investment, according to the Conway Data New Plant Database.
All NanoLumens product is proudly assembled in the United States. And so is its core talent.
“What we want to have here are the out-of-the-box thinkers, developers and creative types,” Cope says. “But those mindsets are not the same as excellent repetitive assembly. Those are easy to rent. It’s the creative guys that are hard to find.”
Other jobs will be created related to all the associated shipping, says Cope. And there are still other jobs: “Our displays that are fixed to look like a giant iPad are actually painted in a giant auto body shop.”
When it comes to supply chain and logistics, Cope says his company deals with between 50 and 100 suppliers of assembled and sub-assembled parts and components. And even though it costs 50 percent more, all the company’s finished products are shipped by air. He says the new location will allow for more storage space.
Cope says the company will soon start exporting to Canada, Europe and South America, something that the State of Georgia and the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce are only too happy to trumpet.
“Georgia’s presence as a technology hub coupled with our global logistics infrastructure provides NanoLumens with a level of access to markets here in the U.S. and around the world that cannot be found in many other places,” said Chris Cummiskey, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Economic Development, in the fall.
Gwinnett has been on its own roll of late, with Partnership Gwinnett helping to attract numerous new locations and expansions to its massive corner of northeast Atlanta. U.S. BLS numbers show that Gwinnett saw a 2.3-percent increase in employment between June 2010 and June 2011, equating to approximately 7,000 net new jobs added and ranking the county 33rd among the 322 largest U.S. counties.
“Gwinnett is creating jobs, even in the wake of a nationwide employment crisis,” said Gwinnett County Commission Chairman Charlotte Nash recently. “Partnership Gwinnett’s economic development efforts play an essential role in making that job creation a reality. We look ahead as a community to continued success in the future.”
‘Do Less With Less’
All well and good, it seems. But Cope says his project received zero incentives. And he likes it that way.
“I’m not sure the state ought to be in the business of economic development,” he says, suggesting it get out of the way instead. “In Hong Kong you go to one place in one day to open a business.” In Gwinnett, notwithstanding the economic development support, he says there’s still plenty of bureaucracy and regulatory obstacles to overcome, whether it’s the fire marshal or licensing. “The more rules and regulations, the harder it is to do business.”
Don’t even ask about the recent trend of new small cities incorporating throughout the metro area. Oops ... too late:
“I think it’s an idea taken too far,” says Cope, who lives in one of those new cities, Johns Creek, and whose former company digs (Site Selection’s home building) now reside in the newly created city of Peachtree Corners. “Johns Creek is effective since they have a little bureaucracy, but they outsource everything else. They’re not creating pension liabilities, or taking on any significant long-term liabilities.”
Then again, he admits, they don’t have the school system to support.
Nicole Wright, project manager in the technology sector for Gwinnett Chamber Economic Development, says she first met Cope when she invited him to speak at an event, and it was through that connection that her department became aware of the company’s need to find space to grow ... and find it fast.
“The conversation about incentives never came up,” she confirms. A number of statutory incentives are available from the state based on certain locations, she adds, but the specific geographic parameters of NanoLumens’ search radius — defined in part by that need to stay close to the private school — took some of those credits off the table. Asked about Cope’s objections to county regulatory and departmental hurdles, she says it’s the first she’s heard about it.
“We gave them the option to have fast-track permitting, a team at the county with a point person overseeing the entire project,” she says. “They did not utilize those services.”
In other words, sometimes the helping hand of government may actually be helpful.
What the county’s team was able to do was help the company quickly compile a list of prospective sites, which NanoLumens then was able to fold into its search list with a realtor. Wright adds that the county is a great resource for growing technology companies when it comes to finding or training for certain skill sets.
According to research released in October by the National League of Cities, the most effective way local governments create opportunities for small businesses is by providing an efficient regulatory environment and avenues for local businesses to engage with policy makers. “Surprisingly, other local tools to support small businesses, including management development assistance, revolving loan funds and marketing assistance, do not have the expected impact on small business growth,” said a League press release.
Other recent League research indicates cities now are learning to work in concert with other jurisdictions, cut out surplus services and generally “do less with less.” That’s a trend Cope could get behind.
“If I had my preference, I think they ought to be run like in New England, with the majority of taxes collected locally. Every city council wants to create a castle. More government never made any city or nation better.”
But more venture capital could.
“We’re the only state in the country that doesn’t have one venture capital fund,” he says when asked about new efforts to create one legislatively. “Atlanta has a dearth of cap available for startup companies. Anything that will allow companies to start and grow and stay here is important and frees up capital. But so is a change in the mindset — if I move here from South Carolina, I get lots of benefits. Do it equally for all, or do nothing for anybody. I’m not sure of the return on investment on tax rebates and givebacks. I prefer they do nothing.”
NanoLumens’ chief competitors for making large images on a wall are projector companies, tiled LCDs and rear-projection boxes. But NanoLumens beats them on thinness, flexibility and size variation, says Cope. Moreover, a 100-inch unit can be hung with two screws, and pulls the electric power equivalent of a coffeemaker, compared to power usage five times that much by competitor products.
The primary three customer sectors for the product are public spaces such as the Georgia World Congress Center or the New York City subway system; trade show displays (customers include Microsoft and Pfizer); and the world of digital architecture. Cope has recently spoken to industry gatherings about the convergence of advertising display technology and mobile phones to create a new era of one-to-one marketing. The principle applies in corporate space as well as public space.
“Instead of more marble or stone or lights, use digital wallpaper and transform the inside of that space,” proposes Cope. “Everybody has the same chandeliers, marble, granite and wood. With digital wallpaper you can transform the space daily or monthly. If it’s raining outside, you can put sun in there.”
In headquarters, he adds, “as people enter the space, you can communicate company attributes, values, successes before you actually talk to them. You can communicate to all your vendors, customers and employees. If you do it right like Comcast in Philly, you create a step above where people want to come to your building to see something, and that coolness and uniqueness is then attributed to you. They’re a customer in different ways. We’re doing similar things with other people, where they want to create that image.”
Museums are another niche awaiting NanoLumens’ products, he says, with a changing large video wall offering enough engagement to attract repeat visitors.
As the company searches out new customers, it also searches out bright new talent. Cope says NanoLumens has a high profit-to-employee ratio, and there’s a reason for that, related to his past experience as Special Ops Advisor to Gen. Norman Schwartzkopf for Desert Storm and head of Marine Corps Missile R&D, as well as his leadership at companies including US Electricar, H Power Corp. and Enrev Corp.
“In the businesses I’ve run since retiring from the Corps, I’m always doing things that haven’t been done before, so you can’t hire people with experience,” he explains. “You have to hire smart people, quick learners, who are willing to risk and fail rather than not risk. If you’re not blowing something up once in a while, you’re not trying hard enough.”
One thing he looks to do is hire veterans like himself.
“Corporate America wants to check the boxes, which is why teachers with PhDs get bonus points and more pay. I’ve run two international schools with students from multiple countries, with staffs of 50 instructors and $50 million in equipment. Yet I’m not qualified to teach in county schools. The same is true of many retiring officers. We have veterans here from every service, and I always look for veterans wherever I can find them.”
Sticking with such principles and goals applies to site selection as well as personnel selection for Cope, even if it means going it alone for a while.
“As the CEO of the company, in doing the site selection, you have to craft your vision and stick with it," he says. “I had a vision of a large showroom, but many people on my team didn’t quite get it. I got pushback for a different building, a cheaper building, a different location. But being determined, I stuck with my vision, and now that we have this, they’re erecting walls. People say, ‘I get it now.’
“You have to persevere,” he says, “in the face of counter-arguments toward mediocrity.”