VWR completes move from West Chester to Radnor

VWR International L.L.C. had hoped to make a statement in early 2009 by making its new headquarters a key part of the redevelopment of a former steel plant in Chester County.

The privately held laboratory-supplies distributor had outgrown the two office buildings near West Chester where it had been since 1992.

However, financing headaches for the real estate developer produced project delays that led VWR to drop that idea and sign a 12-year lease in an existing office building in Delaware County in June 2009.

In so doing, VWR is making a different statement as it breathes new life this week into the Radnor Township building that had been Sunoco Inc.’s headquarters from 1975 to 1991.

Unless you’re a scientist or science teacher, you probably haven’t heard of VWR, which traces its roots to 1852, when John Taylor started a druggist and chemical glassware company in San Francisco. The initials in the name come from Georges Van Waters and Nat Stuart Rogers, two businessmen in Seattle who bought a company in 1924 that had acquired Taylor’s company.

I’d dare say that none of those gentlemen would recognize the global enterprise employing 6,500 people that chairman, president, and chief executive officer John Bollbach leads now. In 2009, VWR had sales of $3.56 billion.

Its corporate history includes a passel of acquisitions, divestments, public offerings, and buyouts. But until 1995, it had been very much a North American-only business with a half-billion dollars in sales. How times change. Last year, 39.5 percent of its sales came from Europe, and VWR is now pushing into Asia.

Planning a new 150,000-square-foot headquarters to house 446 employees gave Bollbach and his team a chance to remake the culture as well as the work environment of VWR. For example, because the company had been in two buildings for years, some employees had never met in person, said Valerie Collado, VWR’s director of corporate communications.

Face-to-face contact will be hard to avoid, based on the tour I had of the five-story building. Paul Dumas, senior vice president of human resources, described the difference between the old and new offices as being like “night and day.” There are lower workstation walls and lots of meeting rooms and open seating areas.

As businesses try to cut health-care costs, some provide a fitness room. VWR has taken the unusual step of hiring Bryn Mawr’s Platoon Fitness to operate its first-floor gym, run fitness classes, and provide personal trainers at no cost to employees.

By making nutrition counseling and free fruit available to employees, as well, VWR is hoping to see bottom-line savings in three years from a healthier workforce, Dumas said.

Pure economics might have favored moving to Delaware, but Bollbach has said VWR wanted to stay in Pennsylvania, where it had been since the late 1980s.

As for state support, VWR received a $600,000 grant to help defray moving expenses.