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Perlarom brings a secretive yet tasteful operation to Maryland


The latest foreign-owned company to open operations in Maryland has a flavor all its own.

Make that several thousand flavors. "There are endless variations," says David Bowen, president and chief executive officer of Perlarom S.A.'s new United States operation, Perlarom Technology Inc.

One thing is certain at the Belgian-owned company: The exact recipes for the food flavorings the company develops and markets and who buys them are as guarded as any handed-down family cookbook from mom.

That's because the tight-lipped business Perlarom is in -- food flavorings -- is enormously competitive and potentially profitable. There are more than 100 food flavoring companies in the United States alone. And there aren't many foods sold today, from ice cream to the latest sports drink, that aren't flavored in some way.

Perlarom's move to Maryland highlights the growing international nature of the industry, said Glenn Roberts, spokesman for the Washington-based Flavor and Extract Manufacturers' Association of the United States.

Brussels-based Perlarom wanted to establish a beachhead in the United States to stay competitive and boost company revenues, Mr. Bowen said. During the next 10 years, Perlarom hopes to double its worldwide sales on the strength of the U.S. market alone.

The privately held company -- whose name translates roughly to "Pearl Flavors" -- had sales of about $45 million last year, mostly in Europe, Mr. Bowen said.

It's not clear what share of the total U.S market that would represent because the industry is so secretive that no one -- not even its trade association -- knows how much the industry rings up in sales annually. Another sign of the industry's cloak: When Mr. Bowen was asked what flavoring project Perlarom is most proud of, he responded slowly, "I'm not so sure I can say."

Founded in 1973 by Jacques Engles and son, Michel, Perlarom also has grown by acquiring other flavoring companies, including three in France, two in Belgium, and one in Britain between 1988 and 1992.

"A lot of food companies are going global and the U.S. market is a very significant part of that market," Mr. Bowen said.

Hence the opening of Perlarom's U.S.-based research and development office in Columbia about a month ago.

Mr. Bowen said Perlarom executives made an extensive search of potential locations for a U.S. headquarters in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland before deciding on the Oakland Ridge Industrial Park off Route 108 in Columbia. The company wanted to locate on the East Coast because that's where a majority of the nation's top food producers are headquartered.

Factors that gave the Columbia site the edge, Mr. Bowen said, were its proximity to several major trucking thoroughfares -- Interstates 70, 95 and 695 among them -- and the region's strong pool of potential employees with the science backgrounds and training needed for the company's work. In fact, Mr. Bowen said, the company was able to hire the entire technical staff from within the Baltimore-Washington region.

Company executives also thought Baltimore-Washington International Airport much more user-friendly than airports in New York and New Jersey, the locus of the flavoring industry in the U.S.

Transportation is a key issue among flavoring companies because they often ship raw materials and it must be done quickly, said Mr. Roberts, the association spokesman.

"The entire package in Maryland was really attractive," Mr. Bowen said. "And it was really one of the friendlier states" when it came to dealing with government officials, he added. The Maryland Department of Business and Employment Development's office in Brussels proved a winning edge when officials there expedited setting up real estate and government contacts in the Baltimore region, the executive recalled.

With the U.S. operation up and running, Perlarom now is planning to shift its four-member sales staff to Columbia from a temporary office in White Plains, N.Y.

Also on tap for the Columbia facility: converting within three years an empty 12,000-square-foot warehouse into a flavor production facility so orders can be mixed there for shipment to U.S. customers.

For now, 10 food scientists and an analytical chemist tinker away on the second-floor laboratories at the Columbia facility.

Visitors are greeted by a bouquet of aromas. Butternut, citrus and sweet berry hung in the air one day last week.

At any one time in Perlarom's labs, scientists could be tinkering with perfecting as many as 20 different flavorings.

And while everyone in the industry competes on price, it's creativity and an astute nose for ever changing tastes that are at the heart of the industry's competition. It is in that arena that Perlarom hopes to get a, well, nose up on flavoring companies in the U.S. market, Mr. Bowen said.

"Creativity is everything. Everyone is searching for the next Coke of course," he said, repeating the oft-heard mantra of the flavor industry.

Risk is also part of the business. Perlarom clients never pay for the research it takes to come up with just the right flavoring nuance. Sales ring up when the client is sold on the flavoring and sets up an order for shipment.

Behind the creativity are high-tech gizmos, such as the gas chromatograph mass spectrometer that dissects and analyzes food extracts down to their basic chemical components so scientists can decipher just what gives, say, vanilla vroom.

But it's the taste buds and noses of the food scientists that can mean the difference between success and failure, Mr. Bowen notes.

"The trick is to be able to define the differences between a lot of flavors and then to adequately describe it to ourselves," Mr. Bowen said. "In a way it's very much the same as wine tasting."

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