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Five years in, former York Int’l campus is key in global business

By , - Last modified: February 15, 2011 at 11:31 AM

In the five years since Milwaukee-based Johnson Controls Inc. came to York County, the former York International campus has been transformed from corporate headquarters to the design and engineering hub for a growing international business.

The Wisconsin firm has invested millions in test laboratories and other facilities in Spring Garden Township following the angst that comes with any big corporate acquisition.

And the firm is hiring, filling administrative slots vacated in the transition with tech people who orchestrate some of the most innovative heating and cooling projects in the world.

“The guys quarterbacking the operations are all here,” said Laura Wand, spokeswoman for Johnson Controls in York County.

Projects include a new medical college in Saudi Arabia and a massive energy-efficiency retrofit of the iconic Empire State Building in New York. With the other synergies possible within Johnson Controls’ diverse company, “the sky is the limit,” Wand said.

York International was one of the biggest names in Central Pennsylvania manufacturing, pioneering refrigeration and air conditioning technology used aboard Navy ships and in residential cooling units stamped “York.”

Suitor Johnson Controls began more than 100 years ago in Wisconsin by pioneering thermostat technology to control the heating and cooling of buildings. It also evolved separate businesses for automotive batteries and car interior components such as dashboards.

A half decade ago, more than 50 percent of Johnson Controls’ profits came from the automotive business, Wand said. But executives sensed the winds were about to shift as they watched building regulations change in the United States and around the world, she said.

They knew the best way to conquer the expected demand in energy-efficient building technology was to take its company’s building-control technology and team it with the best that the heating and cooling market had to offer, Wand said.

In December 2005, Johnson Controls acquired York, forming the Johnson Controls Building Efficiency business unit. The $3.2 billion acquisition included the assumption of about $800 million in debt.

A couple hundred people lost their jobs in the administrative end of York International as it was absorbed into a larger entity. Those positions were no longer needed, Wand said.

Later, Johnson Controls sold the York International property, which became the Patriot Tech Center.

Today, Johnson Controls leases some of the facilities for its own use, and other local companies such as Military and Commercial Fasteners Corp. have moved in to fill the vacancies.

Much of that white-collar York International headcount has been restored with engineers, software designers, product managers, Wand said.

“We have job openings right now, and almost all of them are for engineers,” she said.

Overall, Johnson Controls today has about 500 people working in Spring Garden Township in administration, and engineering and designing building systems, and about 270 people working to build equipment at the Grantley campus.

Also, the company employs about 200 people on Ogontz Street in Spring Garden Township fabricating cooling equipment from sheet metal. It also has more than 100 people working in sales and service in Cumberland County.

There was some worry in the community at the time of the York International acquisition that the buyer would uproot operations away from York County, said Michael Smeltzer, executive director of the Manufacturers’ Association of South Central Pennsylvania.

“I think it has played out much differently than that,” Smeltzer said.

There have been job losses, but there also have been significant investments by Johnson Controls, showing that they see the “unique capabilities” at the facility, Smeltzer said.

The acquisition came at the right time for York International, as the company was headed in a bad direction prior to its purchase by Johnson Controls, said Darrell Auterson, president of the York County Economic Development Corp.

“Clearly, the ship got righted and headed back in a positive direction,” Auterson said.

Today, the local operations serving as the worldwide design hub for Johnson Controls’ Building Efficiency unit help put York County on the map as the corporation tries to attract global business to the region.

It is one of several York County companies, such as Voith Hydro Inc., American Hydro Corp. and Komax Systems York, that show the area is a hub for green energy technologies.

“We really are very, very strong in many different areas of manufacturing because of our engineering knowhow,” Auterson said.

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