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Public Notices

April 20, 2014

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Bill Converse Planning New Manufacturing Operation Here

Originally published: 2014-01-25 07:42:43
Last modified: 2014-01-25 07:45:31
 


BY JOHN M. JONES JR.

EDITOR

Retired engineer-inventor-industrialist William J. "Bill" Converse -- who first came to Greeneville in late 1996 as the founder and president of what was then Alpine Industries -- has stepped out of retirement and returned to active business involvement, he said Wednesday night.

And Greene County is front and center in his plans.

Converse, with energy and enthusiasm apparent in his voice, spoke with The Greeneville Sun on Wednesday evening about what he has been doing for the last few years and about his plans to establish a new manufacturing operation in this community within the next several months.

Alpine Industries' key product was air and water purifiers for residences, and Converse explained that he is continuing to focus his attention on consumer-level environmental products -- in particular, air purifiers.

But he emphasized that in the last few years he has developed an entirely different, and much more effective, air purification product using "cutting-edge technology" and a concept that he said goes well beyond the approach he used some 30 years ago in establishing Alpine Industries.

The new company's name is Air Restore USA. He is president and a co-owner, he said.

The company currently has two products:

* AirRestore (AirRestoreUSA.com), the "universal" main product, designed for use in residences, offices, automobiles, etc.; and

* Critter Zone, a secondary product that he has been manufacturing and selling from China for two years, designed especially to deal with animal-related odors.

The AirRestore unit weighs only about eight ounces, he said, and is about 4 inches by 5 inches by 6 inches in size. It has a very small fan and is very quiet, he noted.

A unit designed to serve an area of 800 square feet of open area sells for $99, but the basic sales package is four units for a house for the price of $370.

As was the case with Alpine, the sales/distribution aspect of the company would be through network marketing. The company currently has about 500 distributors in the U.S., he said.

PLANS OTHER PRODUCTS ALSO

Converse said he plans to manufacture these and, eventually, other related products in Greeneville, beginning later this year and growing over a period of a few years.

He said he hopes to be able to attract many of the former Alpine Industries staff back to his new operation.

At the moment, he does not yet have a building for the operation, but he said he is working on that issue.

He added, in fact, that he would love to be able to return to the very same building in the Mt. Pleasant Industrial Park where Alpine and its successor company operated from 1997 to 2009.

GOAL WAS TO HAVE PLANT HERE

Converse explained that since 2012 he has been manufacturing and distributing the Crittter Zone product from a facility in southern China, near Guangzhou (the former Canton), and has been successful with the product.

But, he said, "The goal has always been that, once we got the product established and recognized, we would be coming back into the Greeneville area to set up a factory again.We have just now basically reached that point."

He is no longer operating in China, he said. At the moment, his company is doing some assembly in Anoka, Minn., under the direction of his son, Eric Converse.

But he said he hopes to be operating in Greene County at some level -- beginning with assembly rather than manufacturing -- within the next 90 days.

Over the next 3-6 months, he said, he thinks his operation here might be employing about 100 people -- but he calls that "a real iffy number."

"It's probably going to be over the next 12 months before we get into full operation," he added.

He said he hopes eventually to be employing around 500 people here.

Converse said that his plans call for the local plant to be doing not just assembly but every aspect of product-manufacturing. "That [vertically-integrated manufacturing] is the only way the economics work out," he stated.

"We have some basic manufacturing to do," he noted. "We have to build some dies, etc. We're going to build everything new again."

The only factor that might accelerate the process of getting into operation, he said, is that some Chinese companies want to buy American-made air purifiers.

"That may speed us up," he said, since when Chinese companies place orders, the orders are very large.

WHY MOVE OPERATIONS HERE?

Why move his operations to Greeneville? the Sun asked. Converse was emphatic in his response.

In part, he said, the problems of trying to produce and market a product from China are "immense."

But more important than the severe challenges of operating from China, he made clear, are his strong positive feelings about the workforce of Greene County, and East Tennessee as a whole.

"I have known from my experience at Alpine," he said Wednesday in the interview, "that if you get workers from around here and get them {fully involved and engaged] in the company, there is nobody in the world that can touch them."

"They did quality work. ... The number of bad products [from the local Alpine operations] was essentially zero."

"I guess you have to go away from here," he added, "to realize how good a workforce East Tennessee really does have -- loyal, hard-working, conscientious."

SPEAKS FROM EXPERIENCE

Converse can speak from a good deal of experience.

In late 1996, the engineer and inventor brought his company to Greeneville from Minnesota.

He seemed to fall in love with the community and its people from the start, and quickly set up his local air and water purifier manufacturing operation, Alpine.

The company established its headquarters here, began operations quickly, and for several of the ensuing years employed hundreds of Greene Countians at its large manufacturing plant in the Mt. Pleasant Industrial Park.

While Converse was the founder and held the post of president, his co-owner, Michael Jackson, was vice president and headed a nationwide multi-level sales network of thousands of distributors.

Four years later, in January 2000, Converse sold his interest in the manufacturing and sales operation to Jackson, although the founder continued to take a strong interest in air and water purification technology and product development.

After a few more years, however, Converse just about entirely retired even from doing product development for the thriving manufacturing-and-sales spinoff company, owned by Jackson and re-named Ecoquest International.

RECESSION HIT HARD

Then came the Great Recession in 2007 and 2008.

After having experienced several years of explosive growth, Ecoquest fell on hard times and eventually had to file bankruptcy in 2009. The company was sold to a large creditor, and its operations were subsequently moved to Bristol and merged into another company.

Although Converse was not an owner of Ecoquest and was not affected by its financial problems, he said Wednesday night, the dramatic downturn in the economy dealt him severe financial setbacks also, especially in his efforts to sell a large tract of prime property off West Allens Bridge Road.

The property, including his large residence there, was originally priced for sale at $13 million, and it was marketed aggressively here and elsewhere.

But in the real estate market of 2008 and 2009, the property did not sell, and eventually he lost it to foreclosure, he said.

As a result, he explained, "I had to rebuild."

And rebuild he has.

NOT READY TO HIRE YET

He said that he has re-hired Tony Chang as chief engineer. Chang had the same position with Alpine Industries.

Coverse said he is not yet ready to begin hiring. When he is, he plans to coordinate it with the Greene County Partnership, he said.

He noted that he has been keeping GCP President and CEO Tom Ferguson generally informed about his plans, adding that Ferguson had been very helpful.

Once he gets the plant operating, he said, he does not plan to oversee it on a day-to-day basis but instead focus his own efforts on his main strength: product development.


 
For more information and stories, see The Greeneville Sun.

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