tampabay.com

Tucked away, a worldwide sensation

From its North American base, an international company helps fast-food places keep the hot stuff hot and the cold, cold.

By JODIE TILLMAN
Published June 19, 2006


NEW PORT RICHEY - McDonald's conquered the world with cheeseburgers and fries. But the lowly toasted deli sandwich stumped the fast-food giant.

How to get the bread hot and keep the lettuce cold. How to confine the preparation to one workstation. And, most crucially, how to get it ready in less than a minute.

Three years ago, McDonald's, which wanted to sell the sandwich in its overseas stores, turned to a star in the food equipment world: Enodis, a corporation with "global headquarters" in Pasco County.

Enodis studied the problem and designed a compact "production cell" that integrated a refrigeration system with an oven carefully calibrated for the varying moisture levels in the bread slices.

The sandwich station was a fusion of speed, heat and ice, and it symbolizes a company vision that has made Enodis stand out in its industry. That vision: dominate both the hot and cold sides of food production.

Enodis makes hot oil cookers for McDonald's french fries and ice machines for cold Starbucks drinks. It makes ovens to toast convenience store hoagies and mobile fridges to chill Heineken.

As simple as that fire-and-ice vision seems, it is rare in an industry in which most companies specialize either in heating food or chilling it.

But the strategy received a major validation when two suitors came calling recently, each with buyout offers worth about $1.5-billion - and Enodis said "no thanks."

"The offers were too low," said chief executive officer David McCulloch, who lives in Tarpon Springs. "What these offers indicate is that we've turned into a formidable competitor.

"The company was not for sale, and is still not for sale," he said. He added, however, "if the right offer comes along, we'll consider it."

Based in London and listed on the London Stock Exchange, Enodis built its research and development center - an anonymous, modern, sand-colored building landscaped with palm trees and young oaks emerging from islands of red wood chips - just off Mitchell Road in Trinity about three years ago.

The company, which was looking for a U.S. location, constructed the facility in New Port Richey because it owned a kitchen supply company in Tampa. The decision to relocate reflected the fact that more than 75 percent of the company's business was in North America.

While London is home and its 27 manufacturing factories are located in eight countries, the Pasco County facility is where the top brass, including McCulloch, are based.

The company says it moved leaders to Pasco so they could better coordinate with the engineers and researchers who develop and study the new products credited with driving an average sales growth of 6 percent in the last three years.

In the 2005 fiscal year, Enodis reported $1.2-billion in sales. Last fiscal year, the corporation saw a profit of roughly $54-million.

McCulloch declined to make researchers available for interviews, saying that their ongoing work was proprietary information. But among the problems the researchers address: How to cook food faster. How to make ice machines that use less water. How to reduce fat associated with frying foods.

He cited one ice machine that Enodis developed to make the ice cubes softer, more porous, so that "the ice becomes flavored."

At the center of the action is McCulloch, who last fiscal year was paid nearly 873,000 pounds - about $1.6-million - in salary, bonuses and benefits, according to the annual report.

A native of Scotland and citizen of Canada, he worked his way up through the company before becoming CEO in 2003. He is a pianist, doesn't always wear a tie to the office and at lunchtime asks his secretary to pick up "whatever" from Publix.

He also travels for business, at least once every two weeks, and there are two clocks - one on Eastern U.S. time and one on London time - outside his office, located past warrens of khaki-colored cubicles.

Which raises the question for the top official of a major corporation: Would he rather work in Pasco County than cities like London, Madrid or Milan?

"This is our global operations center, so I need to be here," said McCulloch, who is married and has three grown children who live in Canada. He added, "The weather is nice."

****

Enodis has more than 30 brands, including Frymaster, Ice O-Matic and Merrychef, each of which has significant name recognition in the international restaurant industry, said Chris Muller, a professor at the University of Central Florida's Rosen College of Hospitality Management.

"Enodis has been lucky in that it managed to put together a good portfolio," Muller said.

The two rival companies that approached Enodis with buyout offers are Middleby, an Illinois company that makes equipment for hot products, and Wisconsin's Manitowoc, which is in the cold food business.

Middleby chief executive officer Selim Bassoul told the Financial Times last month that Enodis faces "considerable competition from larger companies on the one side as well as smaller, more nimble start-ups in places such as Italy and Korea, which are going after them."

Enodis has spent the last three years pulling itself out of debt incurred around 2001, McCulloch said.

At that time, the company was growing out of the United Kingdom's Berisford PLC's 1995 purchase of hot food equipment maker Welbilt Corp. and its 1999 purchase of cold equipment manufacturer Scotsman Industries.

McCulloch said the two purchases plus the economic downturn following the Sept. 11 attacks saddled the new company with about $891-million in debt. In the last three years, the debt has fallen, to $147-million.

More than half of its shareholders are based in the United Kingdom. The top 10 shareholders - including Harris Associates LP and the Capital Group Cos. Inc. - own about 70 percent of the 404-million shares, McCulloch said.

Shareholders are confident that the company can hold out for a better deal, he said, because "they know what we've done in the last three years."

Jodie Tillman can be reached at 727 869-6247 or jtillman@sptimes.com.