Grace to shift headquarters to Columbia; Chemicals giant will relocate from Fla. by year's end; Scores of new jobs likely; Boca Raton too large for whittled firm; Robey 'just elated'


W. R. Grace & Co., one of the world's best-known chemical companies, said yesterday that it is moving its corporate headquarters to Columbia from Boca Raton, Fla.

"We're planning to move as quickly as we can," said Grace spokeswoman Jane D. McGuinness. "But we expect the timing to be more or less midyear, to be completed by the end of the year."

Howard County officials hailed the move, saying it could bring scores of new jobs to the area. Grace's Boca Raton headquarters had 120 employees, 35 to 40 of whom will move to Columbia. Those relocating to Maryland include Paul Norris, Grace's chief executive officer, chairman and president, along with members of the company's legal, administrative and marketing departments.

"I'm just elated," Howard County Executive James N. Robey said last night while attending a Home Builders Association of Maryland reception in Columbia. "Any time you can attract a major corporation, it speaks well of the business climate in Howard County."

Richard W. Story, executive director of Howard's economic development authority, said the company's board voted yesterday to relocate the headquarters and add to the approximately 400 workers Grace has in Howard County. He was involved in negotiations between the county and Grace.

Grace, a $1.5 billion company, has three major business units: Grace Davison, with offices in Columbia and a plant in southern Baltimore, specializes in catalysts, silica gel products and other absorbents. The unit also has a major facility in Quebec.

Grace Construction Products, with major offices in Cambridge, Mass., and Ontario, Canada, produces concrete mixtures, cement-processing additives, fire-protection materials and waterproofing systems.

Darex Container Products, with headquarters in Lexington, Mass., makes container sealants and coatings and compound application equipment.

Story said that, given Grace's history and continued presence in Maryland, persuading the company to move here was not a tough sell. "This one was not one that took a lot of salesmanship."

The company has sold several operations in recent years, and industry analyst Fred Harold Siemer said the Boca Raton facility literally no longer fit.

"Because of downsizing, they would have had to move because they've got too much excess space in Boca Raton," Siemer said.

Grace has drawn unwelcome attention this year with the release of the John Travolta film "A Civil Action," which dramatizes a lawyer's battle to prove that a Grace chemical factory contaminated a small town in Massachusetts, resulting in the deaths of several children.

Grace settled with the families for about $8 million in 1986, but did not admit wrongdoing.

This year, Grace hired a public relations firm, mailed out press kits and established a Web site to confront issues raised by the film and to deflect negative publicity.

That did not ward off the awkward news, reported in the Boston Globe, that Grace did not pay its $10,000 federal fine from the Massachusetts pollution case until 1998 -- 10 years late, just as "A Civil Action" entered production.

That era represented a low point for a company that traces its roots to Baltimore and the 1832 founding of Davison, Kettlewell & Co., which billed itself as "grinders and aciduators of old bones and oyster shells."

Davison, Kettlewell was absorbed by Grace in 1954, bringing a new line of business to a parent company that began in 1854 as a South American steamship line.

Patriarch William Russell Grace served two terms as mayor of New York City in the late 1880s, and in 1885 accepted the Statue of Liberty from France on behalf of the American people.

Grace's headquarters moved to Florida from New York in the late 1980s. By 1996, Grace was a global conglomerate with annual sales of $5.2 billion. That year it began casting off disparate lines of business -- including cocoa products -- to focus on chemicals and packaging products.

With the $6 billion sale last year of its packaging subsidiary, Grace emerged as a $1.5 billion company that supplies specialty chemicals, construction materials and container products worldwide.

"The chemical industry's going through a tough time, as are many basic industries, because of price pressure," said Siemer, the analyst. "Relative to the rest of the industry, they [Grace] are doing pretty well."

Regulatory problems continue to nag the company. Last month, the Securities and Exchange Commission charged the company and seven former executives with manipulating financial reports during the early 1990s. Grace has denied wrongdoing.

In 1997, Grace agreed to settle a case in which the SEC charged that the company failed to disclose a $3.6 million retirement package for its former chairman.

Grace now has 6,300 employees, and clients in 100 countries.

Sun staff writer Edward Lee contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 1/28/99

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