By Jon Hurdle
Special to Delaware Business Times
A European company seeking to build a presence in the U.S. market for crop-protection chemicals might be tempted to base its operation in farm-belt states like Kansas or Iowa.
But for Belchim Crop Protection USA, a Belgium-based distributor of herbicides, fungicides and insecticides, Delaware was the choice because of its good air links with U.S., Canadian and European markets, and its proximity to Washington, D.C., where the EPA oversees the highly regulated industry.
The company, which had global sales of $615 million and about 500 employees in 2017, chose Wilmington as its U.S. headquarters in March after acquiring an Arizona-based competitor and considering different locations around the U.S. for the combined company.
The company also wanted access to top chemical manufacturers like FMC and DuPont. It didn't want to base its U.S. operation in Prescott, Arizona, the home of the acquired company, which is nine hours from its European hub and hard to reach even for domestic customers, said Tom Wood, the new general manager of the U.S. operation.
"If you're a customer or supplier and you want to visit Prescott, Arizona, you fly to Phoenix, you travel two hours in the middle of the desert to a nice cowboy town," he said.
After looking at other locations including Dallas and Kansas City, the company chose Wilmington. The move represented a homecoming of sorts for Wood, who grew up in nearby Delaware County, Pennsylvania.
The new headquarters also has access to Delaware's corn, soybean and poultry growers. While the state's farm industry was not a major driver behind the move to Wilmington, Belchim aims to expand its reach into the market.
"We want to be a big player in Delaware," Wood said.
To compete in the $7 billion U.S. market for crop protection, Belchim will focus on innovative products, three of which are new to the market or have not been accessible to American farmers for many years. Those chemicals will become available over the next 18 months, and will be positioned as additions, not alternatives, to the products already offered by big competitors like FMC.
"We don't see direct competition with these companies," he said. "What we bring is products that will be very complementary to their portfolios."
Customer response to that strategy has been "superb," Wood said. "We've gone from: "˜Who are you and what are you bringing?' to "˜Send us the data, when are you coming back, and how can we help?'"
For example, Belchim offers a product that can be added to the globally recognized herbicide Roundup to control certain weeds that are resistant to the chemical and can destroy crops if not eradicated.
"Growers are prepared to pay for that because it improves their yield," he said. "It's unique and fills the gap."
Products developed by the company, as opposed to those with expired patents, are designed to withstand scrutiny by regulators and environmental nonprofits, and so have limited negative environmental effects, Wood said.