Solenis opens Avenue North HQ with eyes on green future
WILMINGTON – Solenis, a leading specialty chemical manufacturer that specializes in water-intensive industries, officially opened its new headquarters on the Avenue North campus Tuesday, Feb. 4 – and it was completed with growth in mind.
The new 90,000-square-foot office replaces its previously leased headquarters off Beaver Valley Road near the Pennsylvania border. With nearly 200 employees moving to the site in recent weeks, the company with longtime Wilmington roots, including Hercules and Ashland, also is preparing for the future – the office building has room for more than 300 employees.
John Panichella, president and CEO of Solenis, explained the growth of his company will come from the demands of consumers.
“If you’re using a Bounty paper towel in your home, our product gives it wet strength so it holds together. If you’re blowing your nose with a tissue, our materials make that tissue softer. If you receive a package from Amazon, our product gives that [cardboard box] package strength and light weight,” he said.
“Solenis touches a lot of things you use every day, but you really don’t think about,” Panichella said, adding that governmental pushes toward single-use plastics is also a big prospective growth sector for the company. “Our customers in the packaging space are being inundated with requests for us to help them develop solutions to replace plastic-based packaging with fiber-based packaging. They can’t do that without our technologies.”
Panichella noted that paper cups, which actually have plastic linings, are one of the most disposed of materials in U.S. landfills, but Solenis could change that.
“We invented a technology, through an acquisition that we made, that is going to allow people that produce those paper cups to replace the lining with a water-based coating, making the cup compostable and recyclable,” he said. “Consumers are really putting pressure on brand owners.”
Panichella and other company leaders celebrated Tuesday’s ribbon cutting with dignitaries that included Gov. John Carney, who seemed particularly interested in the company’s involvement to create biodegradable products that would help cut down waste – the governor has made reducing litter a tenet of his administration’s social platform.
Solenis stays, grows here
The future of the company in Delaware wasn’t always a sure bet, as it looked at five or six sites around the region, according to Kees Saarloos, vice president of finance and treasurer at Solenis.
Formerly known as Ashland Water Technologies, Solenis was sold by Ashland Inc. to a private equity firm in 2014 for about $1.8 billion. Last year, it closed on a merger with BASF, a similarly focused company, to create a company with $3 billion in annual sales and 5,200 employees around the world. Aside from the Avenue North location, Solenis also employs about 140 people at a research and development lab leased on the Ashland campus off Hercules Road.
“We are really homegrown here in Delaware, with Hercules being downtown for many years, and many of our people live here in Delaware,” Saarloos said. “We were lucky to find this place because it’s only about 2 miles away from where we were.”
Notably, the company did receive a $3.9 million incentive package from the state’s Strategic Fund in 2018 to retain and grow its workforce by 92 employees here. It also received a more than $1 million grant from the same fund in 2015 to grow its workforce, which it did, according to state officials.
The new headquarters, which emphasizes collaborative spaces and ample sunlight, is another way for the company to continue drawing new employees to the Wilmington area, said Dave Nocek, senior vice president of human resources at Solenis.
“We have a pretty high population of experienced talent who could retire if they wanted to and we have to be ready for that,” he noted, adding that the company is committed to diversifying its workforce with new hires as that turnover occurs.
Saarloos noted that employees, including some recent hires, participated in an advisory committee that helped decide the layout and styling of the new headquarters. That was important because leadership wanted to create a space that was welcoming for prospective hires, he said.
The company’s environmentally friendly focus in growth sectors also is helping it attract talent, especially young adults who are passionate about issues like climate change, Nocek said.
“It’s not just goodwill; we get good ideas from good people,” he said, noting the increasing market potential for products like single-use plastics. “It’s a win-win situation.”
Nocek noted that while Solenis is looking for chemical engineers, it also is employing those with varied technical backgrounds along with general business professionals. It has found particular success in drawing from Temple University, where it has found Master of Business Administration grads, he added.
“I think one of the big opportunities for a [headquarters] like this is to attract really good talent,” Nocek said.
Avenue North growing
Gary Ciaffi, president of Delle Donne & Associates, owner and developer of the $350 million Avenue North project, told Delaware Business Times that Solenis was the type of tenant his firm envisioned when it looked to reimagine the old AstraZeneca campus.
“They’re exactly the type of high-end corporate user that we had hoped to sign,” he said, noting Solenis joins ChristianaCare and AstraZeneca as tenants at Avenue North. “They will complement the demand drivers on the other side of the site, which is the mixed-use portion.”
ChristianaCare has been phasing in its administrative services’ offices to the campus, with about 400 employees expected by this summer and more by the end of the year, Ciaffi said.
As far as the more public parts of the project, Avenue North is approved for about 1.8 million square feet of development, roughly split in half on east and west sides, with a mix of residential, commercial, and office space as well as a hotel.
“We’re in the planning stages for the apartments and commercial piece,” Ciaffi said, noting that construction likely won’t begin in 2020. “I suspect the hotel piece will come later.”
Ciaffi said that mixed use development, which Delle Donne & Associates is involved with in several projects, “seems to be the future.”
“We’re going to more of the live-work-play environment,” he said.
For Solenis, it was a draw, as Saarloos noted that “the whole campus idea was very, very attractive to us.”
By Jacob Owens