Coleman helped turn ancillary business into $48 mil. enterprise with 500 employees
FORT LUPTON – Growth remains the goal of every entrepreneur, but for Bill Coleman, it’s truer than for most. Coleman helped found Colorado Greenhouse Holdings Inc., a Fort Lupton-based tomato company that has ripened into a $48 million enterprise.
Coleman started his career by earning a doctorate in organic chemistry and now heads up a Boulder-based venture-capital fund, but it’s for his foresight in helping launch Colorado Greenhouse that he’s being honored with one of the inaugural “Bravo! Entrepreneur” awards, representing outlying areas of Larimer and Weld counties.
Coleman’s interest in cogeneration plants led to the development of Colorado Greenhouse, which produces hydroponically grown tomatoes.
As chairman of Colorado Venture Management and CEO of Colorado Energy Management, both based in Boulder, Coleman also is a shareholder in the greenhouse operation. The venture-capital company provides early-stage seed funding for business ventures along the Front Range.
“Because we’re small, we specialize in our geography,” he said.
Over the years, the venture-capital group has invested in some 70 businesses, including BioStar Inc., Hauser Chemical Research, BI Inc. and Horizon Organic Dairy.
Just recently, the group opened a new CVM Equity Fund V, which will do much the same type of financing of businesses, he said. Meanwhile, Colorado Energy Management handles project management.
“It’s what got us into the greenhouse business,” Coleman said.
The group invests in privately funded electric generation, which it sells wholesale to regulated utilities. Coleman originally got into the greenhouse business because of a law that made it advantageous for cogeneration plants selling power to utilities to use the exhaust heat, or steam, from those plants for other enterprises.
“We did it to increase efficiency,” he said.
James Rinella, president and CEO of Colorado Greenhouse, said the greenhouse originally was an adjunct facility to the cogeneration plants.
“Power plants required a user of the waste heat,” Rinella said.
But over the years, the greenhouse business has gone from a captive entity of the power plant to being a stand-alone enterprise, he said.
In Colorado, the company will produce about 35 million pounds of tomatoes this year. Projected revenues for 1998 are $48 million, said Matthew Cook, executive vice president of production for Colorado Greenhouse. The 6-year-old company employs about 500 people.
Last year, the company opened a 20-acre greenhouse in Estancia, N.M. It is now completing another 20-acre facility in Grants, N.M., about 70 miles away, he said.
The Estancia site is expected to produce 10 million pounds of tomatoes this year, and the Grants facility will produce that amount in 1999, he said.
The company also operates three greenhouses in Colorado. It has a 40-acre facility in Fort Lupton and a 40-acre greenhouse in Brush. It also has a 14.5 acre facility in Rifle. All the Colorado greenhouses are attached to cogeneration facilities, Cook said.
The company resulted from bringing the Brush and Rifle facilities together. They had been managed separately. Cook said the company hopes to expand next year at its New Mexico sites.
“We’d like to diversify sometime in the next couple years,” he said. Currently, sweet peppers are the favorite candidate for a potential expansion crop.
The company has filed an initial public offering with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Cook said the company decided to go public to provide resources for further growth.
Colorado Greenhouse ships to markets in the United States and Canada. Most of its crop goes to the Denver market and to the upper Midwest, he said.
The steam from the cogeneration plants drives turbines to heat the greenhouses. In New Mexico, heat is provided by burning natural gas, he said.
Hydroponic production describes a technique of growing plants in a way that they derive their nutrients from sources other than soil.
Coleman said that the company originally operated three independent greenhouses – one in Rifle and two in Brush.
“We went back to our lenders in 1995 and consolidated them into Colorado Greenhouse,” he said. Later, the company added another greenhouse in Fort Lupton.
Coleman came to Boulder in 1959 after earning a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from the University of California at Berkeley. He started working for a small chemical company in Boulder that eventually was taken over by Syntex Chemicals Inc., now Roche Colorado.
During his stint with Syntex, he headed up a new chemical plant in the Bahamas for the company and later served as president of Syntex from 1972 to 1979.
In 1979, he started Colorado Venture Management and brought partners in the next year. The company was separated from Colorado Energy Management in 1996 because the operations were moving in different directions, he said.
All the investors in the three power plants are shareholders in the greenhouse, he said.
At age 65, “I’ve got my hands full right now,” Coleman said. “We’re trying to get ready for the deregulation of the power industry.”
He said he expects to spend at least another five years involved in his businesses. “I enjoy my work very much,” he said.
Coleman, who is legally blind from a genetic disease, works from both his business office and home office.
Over the years, he has served on the boards of the Boulder County YMCA and United Way, and has been a member of Rotary Clubs and served on the Boulder Mayor’s Committee for Municipal Finance.
Colorado Venture Management received the first Boulder Chamber of Commerce Small Business of the Year award in 1986. Coleman was inducted into the Boulder County Hall of Fame in 1996, and he also received the Esprit Entrepreneur Lifetime Achievement Award several years ago.