Function, design meet on this street

Facility: Millennium Inorganic Chemicals has opened an Anne Arundel County research center that is three times larger than its previous site.

May 03, 2000|By Kristine Henry | Kristine Henry,SUN STAFF

Researchers at Millennium Inorganic Chemicals are celebrating the fact that they now have acres of space to study products so small that 12 million of them could fit on a pinhead.

The company is the world's second-largest maker -- behind DuPont -- of titanium dioxide, a white pigment used in items such as paint, plastics, toothpaste, non-dairy creamer and the white writing on M&M candy. Millennium recently opened an $18-million, 120,000-square- foot research center in northern Anne Arundel County that is three times larger than its old facility five miles away in Baltimore. A ribbon-cutting ceremony with company officials and researchers from around the world was held yesterday.

The center is set up like an indoor town. Visitors enter through a typical reception area, go through a set of double doors, turn a corner and are faced with an indoor main street, complete with real trees, picnic tables, streetlight-style lamps and a huge clock in the Bromo Seltzer style. The walls are dark mauve, selected for its soothing quality, and the floor tiles are color coordinated.

The key feature is the large laboratories that line the main street corridor, where researchers look for better production methods and study the way titanium dioxide, a byproduct of sand, works in finished products.

"This is like a dream come true for most of us," said senior technician Michael Busch, who's worked at the company 12 years. "We have more space to work and things aren't as cramped."

The former site was adjacent to Millennium Inorganic's manufacturing plant at Hawkins Point in southern Baltimore and was only about 40,000 square feet. "Our corporate research strategy is to look at investing in the future, and we're committed to growth, and that means head count, projects and people," said Lawrence R. Valencourt, the center's manager of research and development administration. "We want to attract world-quality scientists and engineers, and we can not do that with a functional but unattractive facility."

There are 123 people working at the Baymeadow Industrial Park facility -- 20 of whom were hired within the past year, and plans are to bring on another 40. The average salary, including support staff, is $75,000.

Millennium Inorganic has 400 workers at its manufacturing plant and 250 at its corporate headquarters in Hunt Valley.

No public grants or loans were received for the site, save for a $14,000 employee training grant from the state Department of Business and Economic Development.

"We need the new facility because we're globalizing the company and going from a regional company to a globally run organization," said Bob Lee, president and chief executive of Millennium Inorganic.

Until recently, the company had major research facilities and marketing divisions in Australia, Brazil, France and Britain. It plans to consolidate functions, many of which will move to Hunt Valley or the research facility.

The company sells about 1.3 billion pounds of titanium dioxide a year at about $1 per pound. It brings in about 75 percent of the revenue of its parent company, Millennium Chemicals Inc. in Red Bank, N.J. The parent company reported a 178 percent increase in profit last week, to $25 million, for the first quarter on sales of $423 million, up 10 percent from the corresponding quarter of 1999.

Sales volume at Millennium Inorganic hit a record at 157,000 metric tons in the first quarter, up 10 percent fromlast year. Revenue was $323 million for the quarter, up from $300 million.

Neil Gussman, a spokesman for Millennium Inorganic, said the company's fortunes are closely tied to existing-home sales, which hit a record of 5.2 million last year.

"Sellers paint their homes to make them look better, then the buyers don't like the color and they repaint," he said. The company is also starting to focus more on selling the byproducts created during the phase in which titanium dioxide is extracted from the sand. One such product is used in dry wall.

Builders began construction on 1.66 million homes in 1999 -- the highest level since 1986 -- and that means a demand for dry wall.

Still, sales of byproducts make up less than 5 percent of the company's revenue. But the ubiquitous nature of titanium dioxide means demand will likely stay strong for the company's product.

The inert element adds opacity to items that would otherwise be clear or grayish in color. Without it, white garbage bags would be clear and vending machines couldn't scan the print on dollar bills.

"If you just sort of think about it," said Valencourt, "you say, `My God, it's everywhere.'"

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