Worshippers at the world-renowned Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi are getting respite from soaring temperatures during this month’s Ramadan thanks to a company in East Texas.
The mosque’s palatial inner courtyard, where pilgrims gather for outdoor prayer during this holy season, is encircled by 110 large evaporative cooling units made by Portacool LLC in the small town of Center near the Louisiana border.
Ben Wulf, the 36-year-old CEO of Portacool, says the portable coolers are dropping ambient temps of 110-plus there by 20 to 30 degrees.
Wulf, the son of one of Portacool’s founders, says the company is becoming a world beater when it comes to cooling air through water evaporation. Also called swamp coolers, these systems operate on a science similar to sweat.
“We’ve become a very globally minded company even though we’re situated in Center, Texas, population 5,200,” says Wulf, who was promoted to his leadership role 19 months ago. “We have an ambitious plan to more than double the size of the company in the next five years.”
The company is targeting Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Southeast Asia and anywhere else where temperatures climb to the unbearable. Portacool sells internationally through distributors.
This year, Wulf expects sales to be $80 million, up 14 percent from 2014. Of that, about $20 million will come from international sales. Ten years ago, global customers accounted for less than $200,000.
Every day a fleet of 18-wheelers heads west from Center to Portacool’s new distribution center in Wilmer. The 300,000-square-foot facility that opened in January will ship 65,000 units this year plus parts and accessories to all 50 states and 55 other countries.
Cool on wheels
It’s quite an achievement for the company that was founded 25 years ago when three East Texans got the idea to put wheels on evaporative coolers like the ones used in nearby chicken houses.
Tyson Foods Inc., the town’s largest employer, has an enormous processing operation and chicken hatchery in Center.
The new company started selling the portable chillers to dry cleaners and auto repair shops.
The company’s big break came in 1992, when the Dallas Cowboys placed Port-A-Cool fans along the sidelines at Texas Stadium. TV cameras zoomed in on Emmitt Smith and Troy Aikman as they took cool-downs during a Monday Night Football broadcast.
Portacool took out the hyphens in Port-A-Cool in January. “We’ve saved ourselves a lot of keystrokes,” Wulf says.
Today, 22 NFL teams, including the Cowboys, keep Portacools on their sidelines. The Byron Nelson uses them each year in its main hospitality tent. And little league baseball teams use them for dugout relief.
Wulf worked at Portacool during the summer while he was in high school and returned to the company in 2001 after graduating from Rice University with a degree in managerial studies. Three years later, he got involved in international sales, which accounted for less on 1 percent of sales.
“I’ve since seen more than 50 countries, of which about 47 I didn’t know existed 10 years ago,” Wulf says. “Center was the center of my world.”
Rosewood Private Investments, a Caroline Hunt company, bought Portacool in 2006 and sold it six years later to Walter Meier AG, a public company in Switzerland. Its largest shareholder, Silvan GR Meier, bought Portacool last year, taking it private again as part of his Meier Capital Ltd.
“I like the company so much, I purchased it twice,” Meier says.
He chose Wulf to lead the charge.
“Ben is smart, energetic and has strong execution skills,” the 40-year-old Swiss entrepreneur and investor says in an email. “We both want to transform Portacool from a manufacturer to a technology company with substantial intellectual property.”
Ken Hatfield, former head football coach of the Rice Owls, says he isn’t surprised that Wulf, who played quarterback and running back, is now quarterbacking a company.
“He had ability,” Hatfield says from his ranch in Arkansas. “He cared about other people more than himself. He was astute and picked things up well. He had a charismatic personality that made teammates want to rally around him. That’s the same personality that he’s using now to run a company.”
Last week, Wulf was in California talking with wine producers and food processors.
His sales pitch: Portacool fans are energy efficient, environmentally friendly and can be used in places where typical air conditioners are impractical or impossible.
Good for business
Heat and productivity don’t mix, Wulf says. “When you get above 92 degrees, you lose over 16 percent of your productivity. That’s real money.”
Wulf is delighted to see triple-digit heat back in this week’s forecast. “Hundred-degree weather produces a lot of smiles in Center, Texas, I can assure you,” he says.
The company’s smallest residential model, which cools about 300 square feet, retails for about $400 at places like Home Depot and Tractor Supply Co.
Larger units are sold through distributors. The most expensive models, which are used in hazardous locations like highly flammable refineries, vegetable-oil plants and paint companies, cost about $8,500.
Longtime customers Dan McNeely and his wife, Hollie, live in an air park community in Midlothian where homes have airplane hangars in the backyards.
McNeely has a hangar for his four airplanes and another at the airfield for his aircraft maintenance business. Both are cooled down by Portacools. He bought his first Portacool in around 1995 and has progressively moved up to more advanced units.
“Quite a few people in the neighborhood have seen mine and bought one,” McNeely says. “It makes the hangars bearable. If it’s 100 outside, it’ll drop it to about 80. We hang out in them, drink beer and talk about airplanes.”