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Manufacturer Sees Need For Speed

By Emma Dill, posted Jul 5, 2024
Pictured are Protocase co-founder Doug Milburn (from left), the company's chief operating officer Mike Pearson and co-founder Steve Lilley. (Photo c/o Protocase)
After looking at several cities across the Southeast, a Canadian company has chosen Wilmington for its first expansion into the U.S.

Protocase, a rapid manufacturing and prototyping firm that serves the aerospace and defense industries, recently announced its plans to set up an office in downtown Wilmington starting this summer.

Within five years, the company aims to establish a manufacturing facility that could employ around 400 people.

The company specializes in rapidly producing fabricated parts from sheet metal and other materials for innovators across a range of industries. Such custom materials can often take days or weeks for other firms to make.

“Our goal is to be the fastest thing from a scientist’s, engineer’s, innovator’s head into parts in hand,” Doug Milburn, the company’s co-founder, vice president and chairman of the Protocase board, recently told the Business Journal.

He described the company’s process as “highly trained, highly repeatable and parameterized,” like putting Legos together.

Pending approval from the Wilmington City Council, the company plans to establish its offices in the city-owned Skyline Center on the north end of downtown.

“The city of Wilmington is proud to welcome Protocase to the region as its newest corporate resident,” Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo stated in a recent news release announcing the expansion. “We are excited about this fast-growing company’s new presence downtown as well as its strategic vision to eventually bring a significant number of manufacturing and other quality jobs to greater Wilmington.”

A future manufacturing facility would support Protocase, founded in 2001, and its subsidiary divisions: ProtoSpace Mfg, Protomentum and open-source data storage company 45Drives, which makes enterprise data storage systems, virtual computing systems and workstations.

The company’s business operations are based in Sydney, Nova Scotia. Operations at the Canadian headquarters, which employs around 400 people, are expected to continue as usual during the firm’s expansion into Wilmington.

The “strategic” expansion will allow the company to better serve its American customers by providing more localized support, and the U.S. location will also make it easier for the firm to work in certain industries, officials said.

“The Wilmington office will feature an American-born service team, capable of securing clearances to work with aerospace and defense industries, which are key focus areas for Protocase and its subsidiaries,” the release stated.

Milburn recently told the Business Journal that the company’s goal is to create “fully domestic transactions” for U.S. customers starting this summer.

Protocase has been eyeing an expansion into the U.S. for roughly the past 10 years.

“We’re way overdue for a move into the U.S.,” Milburn said, noting that about 85% of the company’s business takes place in the U.S.

He said company leaders considered various locations across the U.S. and the Southeast before landing on Wilmington.

The company initially looked at the Western part of the U.S. but decided it was too far from Protocase’s existing Nova Scotia facility. Officials also considered the Northeast and Midwest but didn’t feel the business climate in either region was a good fit. So the company opted to look more closely at the Southeastern U.S., focusing on North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.

Protocase officials ultimately narrowed it down to Savannah, Charleston and Wilmington before selecting the Port City about three months ago, Milburn said.

They were drawn to the area because of its coastal location and its “business-friendly environment,” which includes favorable tax rates and attitudes toward business and development, Milburn said.

Wilmington’s coastal location and proximity to Cape Fear Community College, the University of North Carolina Wilmington and military bases also played a role.

Milburn said the company looks for “aptitude and attitude” when hiring employees instead of those with years of experience. That’s why the local colleges and nearby bases were a big draw. Recent grads and those with military experience typically make up the bulk of the company’s hiring pool.

“We’re thrilled to finally be making the leap south of our border,” Milburn noted in the company’s release. “Upon completion of our thorough due diligence, we feel very enthusiastic about Wilmington in virtually every way. There is a palpable synergy in culture, work ethic and coastal mindset with the city and its people, and we’re excited to plug in and add value to an already wonderful business community.”

Although still in the early stages, company leaders expect steady growth in the Wilmington area in the coming years.
“What we’d like to do is move people growth, move the majority of that to the U.S.,” Milburn said, “and grow organically in those things once we get those seeds planted.”

Wilmington Business Development, North Carolina’s Southeast and the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina worked to help locate the company.

Michael Best & Friedrich LLP and The Cress Group at Sun Coast Partners were among the local private entities providing Protocase with technical expertise and business services to support the project, officials said. Conversations with educational institutions, including UNCW and CFCC, also played a role in the company’s search.

“Protocase is another exciting foreign direct investment story for greater Wilmington,” Scott Satterfield, CEO of Wilmington Business Development, stated in the release. “Global companies continue to be drawn to our strategic geography, growing workforce, modern infrastructure and pro-business leadership. We are excited about our partnership with Protocase and look forward to supporting the success of this impressive company.”

Other recent examples of international companies investing locally include an announcement earlier this year from India-based hose and fitting manufacturer Polyhose that it plans to double the size of its facility in Pender Commerce Park.

In Brunswick County, India-based Epsilon Advanced Materials announced plans to build a $650 million plant for electric vehicle components.

Late last year, SANY America Inc., the U.S. subsidiary of one of the world’s largest engineering machinery manufacturers, relocated its North American warehouse and distribution presence to Wilmington, and last fall, German manufacturer Kessebohmer launched plans for a $30 million headquarters operation along U.S. 421.
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