By Eric Peterson | Nov 18, 2014
Glenwood Springs, Colorado
Glenwood Springs, Colorado
Employees: about 30, plus more than 80 sales agents
On the Western Slope, Ryan and Juan Grobler have gone from the rugby scrum to the world of energy-efficient refrigeration, with very cool results.
And exactly how do two South African brothers go from pro rugby to making better commercial fridges in the Roaring Fork Valley?
The Groblers put down stakes in the area in 2005 and worked in construction and real-estate development after a stint in Aspen.
"A gentleman I used to do some work with approached me with an with an ethylene filter, which supposedly prolongs the life of food," says Ryan Grobler, the company's South African-born president who started the company with his brother and FridgeWize's executive VP, Juan.
One thing led to another, and the filter led to the realization that the existing commercial refrigeration was hugely inefficient, and much of the lowest hanging fruit -- better fan blades -- had yet to be picked.
The filters fell by the wayside as the Groblers came up with a better fan blade made of carbon fiber, and put together an entire mechanical package that can result in refrigeration about 25 percent more efficient than the norm. That represents big bucks to grocery stores, fast-food chains, and morgues and hospitals.
"Refrigerators run 24/7," says Ryan. "They're never shut off." Amazingly, about 20 percent of the world's energy usage goes into refrigeration, the same amount that comes from nuclear generation. "It's a massive amount of energy. The next phase of energy savings is in refrigeration."
It's cost-prohibitive to retrofit refrigerator motors, but the fan blades can be easily replaced. And most existing fan blades are cheap and prone to deformation. Enter fan blades made of carbon fiber. "We've created a part that is a carbon-fiber build which sets us completely apart from anybody on the market," Ryan says of the blade. "By de-stressing it, you're increasing efficiency. You can drive a vehicle over it -- it won't break. It'll outlast the motor."
These industrial-strength fan blades make the system function at a much higher level, reducing the energy intake of the fan by as much as 50 percent. Clients can see their savings online in real time as the technology is implemented.
"It's unbelievable," says Ryan. "Last year, we saved 20 million kilowatt-hours. This year, we'll surpass that substantially."
To make the blades, FridgeWize works with a contract manufacturing partner in Denver that is "probably the only company in the world that can do it," says Ryan. He describes a closely guarded, 3D bonding process that perfectly laces the carbon fiber.
The Groblers have focused sales efforts on "major fast-food chains and grocery stores" and today the company has installs from coast to coast at Arby's, Boston Market, Wendy's and Whole Foods locations, not to mention the Mayo Clinic, Catholic Health Initiatives hospitals, and the University of Minnesota.
And how'd the Groblers make their way to the Rockies? They were introduced to Aspen in their rugby days, and moved there after retiring from the game.
"We just loved the valley itself -- the lifestyle, the fishing, the hiking, the skiing," says Ryan of the Glenwood Springs zip code.
Challenges: "The biggest hurdle is penetrating the market with a new product," Ryan says. He's hoping utilities will start offering incentives for FridgeWize installations. "Xcel is creating a custom program for us," he notes.
Opportunities: Residential swamp coolers. Like refrigerators, the fan blades are often cheap and a major source of inefficiency.
Exports represent another opportunity. "We've had interest from Austria and a few countries in Europe," says Ryan, noting that Third World countries "need it more than anybody. The grids aren't anything like the U.S. In South Africa, for instance, they have rolling blackouts all of the time."
A third: Ryan calls data centers "a huge opportunity” for FridgeWize.
Needs: None to speak of. FridgeWize has developed leasing and financing programs that can minimize investment. "We've tried to take all of the obstacles off the table for the client," says Ryan.