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December 3, 2012

FIBA Technologies Expanding In MetroWest

Photo/Edd Cote
Photo/Courtesy This aerial photo, taken around 2005, shows the 53 Ayer Road property purchased by FIBA in September for $3.3 million.

About a decade ago, FIBA Technologies Inc. vacated its facility on Route 9 in Westborough to pursue an expanded business model at a larger property in Millbury.

The company had made transportation rigs, known as skids, for gas storage vessels for more than 50 years. But around 2003, FIBA's management decided the company would also start designing and manufacturing the tanks, which prompted a move from its original Westborough location to Millbury.

The company didn't anticipate how quickly it would grow in its new home, said John Finn, business development manager at FIBA.

Since the move to Millbury, the United States has experienced a natural gas boom brought on by new extraction methods. In addition, solar panel production has ramped up and the electronics industry is getting ever more advanced. All three industries rely on various gases that must be safely stored and transported, especially as some are highly explosive.

“There are more applications for compressed gas today than there ever were in the past,” Finn said. “There's huge demand for our type of equipment.”

FIBA — which has 147 workers in Central Massachusetts, 250 worldwide, and makes upwards of 3,000 vessels per year — has been running at capacity in Millbury for several years, he said.

But that will soon change when the company opens a new facility in Littleton, a 365,000-square-foot building on Ayer Road that could one day serve as its new headquarters, Finn said.

The Littleton facility will double FIBA's current production capacity, Finn said.

The company purchased the former concrete products building — largely vacant for years — for $3.3 million in September. It will spend upwards of $12 million more on renovations, a new manufacturing furnace and other equipment, according to its agreement with town officials, which was approved by voters at a town meeting in November.

Work on the property will begin before the end of the year, and the company expects its new facility to be up and running by summer of 2013.

Town Concerns Alleviated

The Ayer Road site, once a concrete pre-cast facility that drew stone from a nearby quarry, is one that Littleton officials had begun to worry about, said Keith Bergman, the town administrator. In July, selectmen had identified the property, largely vacant for the past five years, as a high priority for economic development.

So Bergman said it came as relief when FIBA made its intentions known only several months later.

“This is a particular piece of property we most had in mind for needing to find a fix,” Bergman said. “It seems like a great match.”

The town recently authorized a tax increment financing deal that will save FIBA an estimated $92,000 in property taxes over 20 years. The company also plans to pursue an investment tax credit from the state, which would have a higher dollar value.

Finn said the company is prepared to expand in Littleton no matter what tax breaks are ultimately approved by the state, but he said the savings matter.

“The more we can save in tax savings, the more we can invest directly into the property,” Finn said.

The project would create 67 new jobs over the next several years, according to the agreement between the town and the company. The facility, which is adjacent to a stone quarry, has been 80-percent vacant for five years. It has several smaller tenants leasing space. FIBA will occupy 50 percent of the vacant space at first, with plans to take up more later.

Bergman said he's pleased FIBA came forward to fully utilize the building.

“We had neighbors who had seen problems with the property before and when they saw that a successful business that runs a first-class operation was looking to locate to our town and really take over and take responsibility for a property that's been problematic, it's great news for the neighborhood and the community as well.”

Staying Diversified

FIBA builds storage tanks and skids for dozens of types of gases used in the manufacturing, industrial, medical and transportation industries, among others.

Different gases are stored at different pressures in tanks of different thicknesses and sizes.

Though its offerings are diverse, Finn said FIBA's bread-and-butter storage products are for high-end specialty gases like silane — a compound used to make thin silicon layers in photovoltaic and semiconductor products — and nitrogen trifluoride, or NF3, which is used as an etchant in electronics.

FIBA's customers include major gas suppliers like Air Liquide, Air Products and Linde, who sell and distribute various gases around the world.

One of FIBA's largest customers last year was the U.S. Air Force, Finn said, which used its products to launch surveillance balloons in Afghanistan.

The natural gas boom in the United States has also driven business, Finn said, though he noted that the industry is much larger overseas. To tap into a heavy focus on natural gas as fuel there, FIBA opened a facility in Taiwan last year geared toward the electronics and semiconductor markets. Those industries are a huge piece of the Taiwanese economy, which accounts for 65 percent of the world's electronics manufacturing services business, according to a 2011 report by global investment firm Thomas White International Ltd.

FIBA also has facilities in Louisiana, Pennsylvania and Kentucky, where it services and retests its storage equipment for customers, as required by regulations.

The company is also preparing to start manufacturing a lightweight, non-metal tank for natural gas buses and other vehicles, Finn said.

Storage Industry Grows Competitive

But as the demand for gas storage has grown, so has the competition.

“I think 15 or 20 years ago there might have only been one supplier of these tubes we make,” Finn said. “And today there are two in the United States, one in India and I think three in China and one in Korea.”

Finn said part of the reason FIBA is pursuing local and state tax incentives is to level the playing field with it's global competitors, whose labor costs are less.

“We grew up here and we still like doing business here,” he said. “It might be cheaper for us to do business in other parts of the world, but we've made a decision to stay here.”

Bob Arcieri, president of Pennsylvania-based Weldship Corp., which has a Westborough office, said his company sources some of its containers from FIBA and competes with them for business. He said both Weldship and FIBA are well-known and have benefited from the gas boom.

“I'd say that both companies have been very fortunate over the past several years to be involved in the specialty gas industry,” Arcieri said. n

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