Manatee company Verde GSE plans production of ground-based aircraft air conditioning systems

MANATEE -- When Rick Hansen left his job as the general manager at Hobart Ground Controls in Palmetto in early 2013, he thought he was retiring. It was a nice thought, while it lasted.

Two serendipitous events changed that plan.

First, a friend and business colleague suggested they start up a manufacturing business. Then earlier this year, Hobart, a commercial ground aircraft power systems manufacturer, announced a reorganization and rebranding that included shedding its Trilectron pre-conditioned air, or PCA, production line.

Not one to leave a profitable product on the table, Hansen gathered up three partners with a bent for refrigeration and mechanical design to start a PCA company, Verde GSE.

Since then, Hansen and his partners in Verde have invested about $100,000 in designing and building a prototype sample of the company's proposed line of ground-based aircraft air conditioners. The company has plans to add up to 14 employees to its workforce in the next five years, and expects to sell units to airports and airlines in October. Sales are projected to hit $13 million a year once production hits full swing.

Air travelers know PCAs by the cool air they pump into aircraft as they sit at gates waiting to load and unload passengers.

Without a PCA hookup, an aircraft has to run an onboard motor to generate

electricity to run its own air conditioners.

For the past month and a half, Verde tested a 30-ton version of its air conditioning unit in the summer heat at Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport. Built to use up to 30 percent less electricity than other PCAs on the market, the device did hard duty providing cool air for passenger aircraft loaded with actual passengers. Verde recently moved the device to Orlando International Airport to test a higher 60-ton capacity.

Hansen said he and his engineers want to be sure it can do what Verde will be promising future clients.

"What we didn't want to do was rush a product to market," he said.

The Verde PCAs are scratch built, designed by company partners Ben Newell, Ty Newell and Alexander Long. The aim from the beginning has been to build 30-, 45-, 60- and eventually 90-ton air conditioners that are mechanically simple, energy efficient and price competitive. To generate efficiency, Verde air conditioners will feature an intelligent control system that will automatically adjust blower, fan and motor performance based on temperature, humidity, wind speed and other environmental factors.

The units are also designed to use less refrigerant and run at under 85 decibels.

Initial tests at SRQ showed Verde's design to be successful. Operating side by side with a competitor's PCA on a pair of Boeing MD-80 passenger jets, the Verde unit required one-third fewer amps to run while cooling the interior of the jet by an additional nine degrees, Hansen said.

Manatee County is expected to be the home of a future Verde production facility. The company got assistance from the Bradenton Area Economic Development Corp. earlier this year to secure a six-month lease in an industrial building at the Manasota Industrial Park, where the first Verde was assembled.

Now that the prototype is well into testing, Hansen said he will again enlist the help of the EDC to find a roughly 5,000-square-foot building where Verde can build a full-scale production line.

EDC CEO Sharon Hillstrom said working with Hansen renewed a business relationship that began when he was Hobart-Trilectron.

In addition to facility search assistance, her agency helped Verde gain express permitting through Manatee County, as well as $14,000 of county incentives for job creation.

To earn all the incentive money, Verde must create 14 new jobs paying an average of $41,164 a year.

Hansen said he is committed to paying living wages because he believes Manatee County workers can produce Verde's PCAs in half the time as the competition.

"You should be able to get a good quality of worker in Manatee County," he said. "I think it's going to work for us."

Manatee County could also be good for sales. Rick Piccolo, SRQ CEO, said if Verde's PCAs are competitively priced and as efficient as expected, he can see buying the units for SRQ.

The airport owns seven PCAs.

"We like to try to provide business for the local companies as much as possible," Piccolo said. "We would definitely be looking at those."

While Verde has not yet published pricing for its PCA units, Hansen said pricing across the industry for all sizes of the devices ranges from about $48,000 to $125,000.

Several companies compete in the PCA market including multinational Cavotec, Chicago-based JBT AeroTech and Twist Aero in Jamestown, Ohio.

Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027, or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.