Ecolab Inc.'s training hub just got a major upgrade, going from a basement in St. Paul to a splashy new facility in Eagan.
The sanitizing giant took the wraps off a $10 million training center Thursday that features new R&D labs, training equipment rooms and hands-on classrooms for chemists, molecular biologists and visiting sales and service workers.
The 51,000-square-foot facility is wedged into Ecolab's existing Schuman campus. The site took about 18 months to complete and replaces the trainee center in the basement of Ecolab's headquarters in downtown St. Paul.
"Frankly, we had outgrown that space," CEO Doug Baker told county officials, employees and reporters on hand for a tour of the new center Thursday. "Many of our global customers are headquartered here [in the U.S.]. And so having a strong base here is absolutely critical to our global ambitions," Baker said.
The new space, which has three main labs, is not expected to increase employment but will host about 130 classes each year for sales and service employees from around the globe. They will come to the center for stretches ranging from three days to three months.
Most workers undergo at least five weeks of classroom training in their first year with Ecolab, which generates about $11 billion in annual sales. Trainees and field technicians also will have access to e-learning labs, wet labs, dispensing systems, customer equipment and electrical training, said Roz Tsai, institutional training director for Ecolab.
On Thursday, technicians Jason Gonzalez and Harvey Evans were busy collecting and testing water from two steaming dishwashing machines the size of refrigerators. Gonzalez dropped chemicals into a test tube, causing the water to turn bright pink.
"We want to find just the right amount of detergent. We don't want customers to use too much," Evans explained while re-calibrating the machine.
Down the hall, five employees dashed between three large washers and two massive dryers checking fabrics for durability. Around the corner, nearly a dozen chemists and molecular biologists in lab coats toiled at long, white workstations with overhead racks of glass and plastic bottles.
Steps from the lab, Baker pointed up to call attention to rows of overhead water pipes that each carry water with differing soil and mineral contents that affect its hardness or softness. Customers in different parts of the globe have different types of water and Ecolab's chemicals must adjust accordingly, Baker said.
Ecolab makes detergents, sanitizers and chemicals for customers ranging from restaurants to hospitals. They include Marriott, Hyatt, McDonald's and Burger King. Scores of other customers will be invited to the training center regularly to work on problems or to develop new products.
"Our customers look to us to help ensure safe food and healthy environments for their guests," and the new center will help Ecolab do that, said Mike Hickey, president of Ecolab's global institutional business. The training center also is expected to help the company retain employees, he said.
The $10 million investment is just the latest for Ecolab, which has been on a growth binge. In December 2011, Ecolab paid $8.3 billion for Nalco, an Illinois-based water treatment company. Last month, Ecolab said it would buy Houston-based chemical firm Champion Technologies for $2.2 billion.
The Department of Justice recently requested more information about the Champion deal, seemingly putting the transaction in jeopardy. Both Nalco and Champion cater to oil and gas companies and there is a concern that Ecolab would have too much control in that industry.
Baker said Thursday that he was "not surprised" by the Justice Department inquiry and that he still hopes to close the deal by Dec. 31.
Dee DePass • 612-673-7725