BROOKSVILLE — When Joachim Buttke was looking for the right American community for expanding his German business, he sent inquiries to all the counties on the gulf side of Florida, a state he knew from sunny vacations.
R&M Ship Tec was welcomed almost everywhere, but the company took an instant liking to Hernando County.
"There was a personal feeling of being welcome — by everyone," Buttke said.
He was also impressed by property and personnel options. Maybe people who were commuting into Tampa might be willing to work for R&M in Brooksville, and regain two hours of their lives each day, he said.
The R&M Ship Tec Group, which has been in business for more than a century, creates pre-made ship cabins and fixtures. Their products end up on cruise ships, ferries, offshore oil rigs, freezer ships, yachts and submarines.
They have offices in Germany, Italy, Norway, Russia, Vietnam — and now Brooksville.
The Hernando affiliate makes Coast Guard-approved marine panels for outfitting and insulation on ships. The company is expanding its operation to include the development of both a flooring and ceiling system.
The product is basically sandwich construction with noncombustible material, said Dan Gray, general manager of all R&M operations in the United States.
R&M works with rockwool — rock that has been heated and spun like cotton candy, a process that has been used for many years in Europe.
"It's similar to fiberglass, except there's no health hazard," said Gray.
For many months, Gray was the only employee until he hired an assistant, Dana Hoynacky. When they first started, their office consisted of cardboard boxes and personal cell phones. They recently graduated from boxes to a conference table, and offices with all the technology they could want.
The Brooksville operation, on Spring Hill Drive near the Hernando County Airport, currently has 10 employees, and as business grows, the company will continue to hire.
"I can't even tell you how amazing it is to see forklifts and people working in the production area," Hoynacky said.
Having the product made here cuts time off delivery for ships being finished in North America.
"When they send their product here in a container (from Europe), it takes four weeks," said Gray. "It's much faster to make them here."
So far, it has been the first international business the Hernando County Office of Business Development has been able to snag.
"Once you've done one, you learn a lot," said Mike McHugh, the office's director. "We are working on other international projects."
In the meantime, Gray and his crew are marketing their product and working on getting new contracts. The current economy makes things tough, but they are hopeful they can ride out the storm.
"If it works, we will expand," Buttke said.
Shary Lyssy Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.