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Geothermal firm helps warm a cool economy

APPLETON -- Appleton is celebrating welcome news on the jobs front after learning that one of its homegrown manufacturing operations will soon be doubling its output and increasing employment.

Econar's 47 employees in Appleton cheered last week when they learned that the owner of the geothermal heat manufacturer will be closing a production facility in Monroeville, Pa., and transferring its operations to Minnesota.

Research Products Corporation of Madison, Wis., will be turning to the Appleton facility to produce a greater share of its energy-efficient, "green'' heating systems.

The company's decision could lead to a doubling of output at the Appleton plant, according to Del Overholser, Econar president.

Along with transferring manufacturing from the HydroHeat operations in Pennsylvania, the parent company announced that it will also be producing geothermal units for commercial markets it had not previously targeted. Overholser said he is optimistic that the company will realize increased sales through its entry into the markets.

Overholser said the company does not know yet how many new jobs will be coming to Minnesota. There will be an increase in jobs at both the Appleton facility and the company's headquarters and sales operations in Elk River, he said.

He said the company's decision to turn to Appleton for its manufacturing has much to do with previous community support in Appleton and the rest of Swift County. The support helped make it possible for Econar to build a 19,050-square-foot addition to its facility.

The company moved into the new addition just over one year ago. When Research Products Corporation looked at where to consolidate manufacturing activities, Appleton became the obvious choice: It already has the capacity and equipment needed, he explained.

Overholser founded Econar in his garage and launched it in 1990. His brother Jim serves as general manager for manufacturing operations in Appleton.

The company produces geothermal heating systems for both homes and large buildings. The company has seen steady growth since its start, with annual revenues today of $95 million.

Overholser said the growing market for energy-efficient and green heating systems has helped Econar manage the housing crash and drop in new housing construction. The federal government's stimulus program offering a tax credit for installing energy-efficient heating systems has helped as well.

Although the Appleton facility has not been operating at full staffing levels, the company has seen stable demand and sales, he said.

The company was acquired by Research Products Corporation -- probably known best for its Aprilaire line of home ventilation and heating products -- in November 2008.

Overholser said he had previously spurned a number of offers for the company, and was really not interested in selling it when contacted by Research Products Corporation. He said he became convinced that the company's resources would allow Econar its best opportunities for growth in the fast-growing markets for clean and efficient heating systems.

Even so, Overholser said he had no expectations that one year later he would be talking about doubling production in Appleton. "We've been growing steadily,'' he said, "but we've never doubled. This is quite exciting for us.''