WALLA WALLA -- It seems fitting that the 31,500-square-foot home of Key Technology's new customer visitor center got its start as a furniture store.
The use by the former retail occupant and the longtime manufacturer have more in common than one might think.
Where living room and dinette sets were staged for visualization in people's homes, Key Technology has set up its sorting, conveying and processing systems for live demonstrations for its food processing and pharmaceutical customers.
The equipment sits behind massive glass panels that make up a sound-proof demonstration area visible from the entryway.
"When (clients) come in, we want them to be able to see what we're all about," said John Boutsikaris, senior vice president of global sales and aftermarket for Key Technology during a recent tour of the new building.
The new "Innovation and Solutions Center" represents expansion and consolidation all at the same time.
It builds Key's campus while at the same time bringing together operations that had previously been stretched from the Avery Street headquarters to the company's former Isaacs Avenue spot. The back end of the building is just a meandering sidewalk away from Key's Avery building. The company's most "customer-facing" employees are based in the new space -- including sales, marketing and sales applications engineering team members. It also allows for new job openings -- Key has about 30 open positions -- and employee expansion in Walla Walla.
The greatest focus of the space, however, is meeting the needs of clients in a way the Avery building couldn't do, officials said. It has multiple conference rooms for clients as well as employees. It's outfitted with live video feeds so that those unable to make the trip to Walla Walla can see the same demonstration their colleagues are witnessing in real time. It offers multiple work stations, so that client productivity doesn't stop through the visit. It also features a secured area dedicated to customer Factory Acceptance Testing. This verifies the equipment operates according to specifications before it is shipped out.
The more than $1.5 million transformation began last October. It was led by Project Manager Howard Paulson, who retired in 2001 after 35 years with Key and continues to work with the company on special projects. It was done almost exclusively with local companies. Fifteen local businesses put their fingerprints on the reconstruction.
Started last October, the remodel of the space culminated about two weeks ago with the move of about 20 to 25 employees -- specifically those who have the greatest chance of interfacing with clients. The building got its first official client visit Thursday when Key employees were expected to demonstrate the equipment on walnut pieces.
How it works: Customers send their products -- from the aforementioned nuts to salad greens -- to Key ahead of the scheduled visit. Employees run the product through Key's conveyor and sorting equipment. The idea is to simulate as closely as possible what will happen in the customer's own plant. Upon arrival the customer is able to see demonstrations and application tests and receiving training on the equipment. With a larger space, Key is also able to host multiple clients at the same time and provide working accommodations for customers.
"Basically what we're trying to do is really reset or raise the customer experience -- meet every demand," Boutsikaris explained.
"Their total experience from arrival to departure is optimized," Boutsikaris said.
He said the company was able to pull off the investment during the rough economy because of its conservative approach to operations.
"We don't take tremendous risk financially with our shareholders money," he said. The methodical approach to growth and expansion combined with a well-timed opportunity with last year's closure of neighboring Courtesy Home Furnishings provided an optimum formula for the reconstruction.
The result is a facility the company had long had in its sights.
Though Key runs demonstration labs in China, Australia and Mexico, nothing so far has been as thorough and complete as this, said Corporate Communications Manager Anita Funk.
"I think this has been dreamed about for a long time," she said.