October 17, 2011

World Would Be Much Blander Without Jacksonville’s 100-year-old Renessenz

The Renessenz chemical plant on West 61st Street in Jacksonville has gone through boom times and bankruptcies, research breakthroughs and production reincarnations, expansion into the global market and a dizzying number of ownership changes.

This month, it celebrates its 100th anniversary.

Formerly known by names such as SCM Glidco Organics and Millennium Specialty Chemicals, the plant sits in a residential neighborhood east of Interstate 95 and south of the Trout River. Motorists on I-95 can easily see the metal columns rising above the tree line. The plant produces huge quantities of flavors and fragrances that are sold worldwide and added by other companies to a host of everyday products – the flavor in your toothpaste, the aroma in your soap, the "cooling" sensation in chewing gum.

"If we didn't do what we do, it would be a much blander world," Renessenz Vice President Mike Wimberly said.

100-year milestone

Originally built in 1910, the plant hit its centennial last year. But it was in the process of being purchased by TorQuest Partners, a private equity firm based in Toronto. With that sale finalized last December, attention turned to marking the 100-year milestone with a ceremony scheduled Saturday at the plant.

Matthew Chapman, a partner in TorQuest, said the rise of consumer buying power in countries like China and India means Renessenz has a growing market. He said the Jacksonville plant is in a good place geographically to make the products, which are derived from turpentine and orange oil, and has decades of expertise in making fragrances and flavors.

"When you talk about the future of the U.S. manufacturing sector, I think this is an example of a company that is truly unique and can operate globally," he said. "This is not about finding cheap workers. It's about innovation."

The Jacksonville operation works in tandem with another Renessenz plant on Colonel's Island in Brunswick, Ga. They make 20,000 tons of fragrance and flavors a year. The Jacksonville plant employs 156, and the Colonel's Island site employs 44. Renessenz also has offices in Belgium, Singapore and Brazil because 60 percent of its products are sold overseas.

The process at Renessenz's plant is simple in concept but complex in execution.

Renessenz starts with turpentine from pine trees or orange oil, which is a byproduct from the manufacture of orange juice. The chemical manufacturing process then rearranges the molecular makeup of the turpentine or orange oil to replicate the molecular structure of other natural products.

For instance, turpentine can be restructured so it's identical to the molecular arrangement of a flower, such as a rose or lavender flower.

The plant also converts menthol into a "sensory coolant" that is tasteless but creates a refreshing sensation in the mouth for toothpaste and gum.

'City that stinks'

Though the end product is pleasant-smelling, the plant once contributed to Jacksonville's reputation as the "city that stinks." When Mayor Tommy Hazouri sought to crack down on odor emissions in the 1980s, the plant, owned then by SCM Glidco Organics, clashed in legal battles.

But the plant also invested in technology to control the release of foul sulfuric odor during the manufacturing process.

Founded in 1910 as Standard Turpentine Co. and bankrolled by Jacksonville resident W.E. Cummer, the plant at first was in a rural site. The city's growth brought neighborhoods close to the plant's boundaries.

"When we say we have neighbors, we truly have neighbors right across the fence," plant chemist Melissa Williams said.

In 1982, then-owner SCM Corp. expanded by opening the second plant in Brunswick. The manufacturing process takes material back and forth between the two locations during different phases of production.

"We're kind of joined at the hip with Brunswick," said production manager Byron Yelverton.

Renessenz uses about 30 percent of the 192-acre Brunswick site, meaning the rest is room for growth. Wimberly said the Jacksonville site also has some space for expansion.

Whatever happens, the history of the plant shows its future success will depend on being ready to change and embrace new products.