Former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell helped settle centuries of animosity in Northern Ireland in the 1990s, and spent the last two years trying to do the same in the Middle East, before resigning last week as President Obama's special envoy to the region.
Wednesday's assignment was much simpler, but he applied the same diplomatic charm in helping to dedicate the Almac Group's new North American headquarters in Souderton, Montgomery County.
Almac provides manufacturing and clinical-testing services to 600 pharmaceutical and biotech businesses, big and small, worldwide. It is based in Craigavon, Northern Ireland, and Mitchell became friends with Almac's founder, Allen McClay, when Mitchell was chancellor of Queen's University in Belfast and McClay, who died last year, was one of the university's enthusiastic boosters.
"I am an American and I always will be, but a large part of my heart and emotions lie with the people of Northern Ireland," Mitchell told company leaders, McClay's widow, Heather, and other guests. "It was Allen's home and my adopted home. Allen McClay represented the best of Northern Ireland."
Almac's new facility has brightened a few lives in Souderton, as it brought about 800 employees (with 45 openings), including about 300 new hires. The company moved all but a few of the employees from its Audubon facility because it needed more space. Plans for the Audubon space are not set.
"Allen loved the razzamatazz of an event like this," said Almac Group chief executive officer Alan Armstrong, who came from Northern Ireland to lead the festivities. "He loved growth, development, success, and quality. We'll see all of that in this building. The business was so successful it deserved a new facility such as this. It sends a strong message to our people, competitors, and customers. We are here to stay and remain in business."
Almac is a privately held company, with about 3,000 employees worldwide, 1,100 in the United States.
The Souderton facility has 240,000 square feet and cost $120 million. Most of the work at the facility involves helping pharmaceutical companies manufacture, package, and ship products that are used in clinical trials. The plant can ship 50 or 150,000 bottles of pills, with most orders being distinct because of the nature of trials.
The plant temperature and humidity can be adjusted in different sections depending on the formula for producing the drug.
Storage areas have shelves stacked to the high ceiling. Forklifts are designed to be driven in magnetic tracks that lessen the space needed for plucking packages from those shelves, and to reduce accidents and injuries.
"There's probably 30 percent more efficiency," Leon Supplee, director of logistics, said during a tour. "The idea is to have linear flow and no backtracking."
Security is part of that equation. Background clearance is needed to work in certain areas. During the tour, company officials showed how a series of three air locks can be opened only one at a time. The vault for controlled substances has cameras, motion detectors, and silent panic buttons tied to local police.
Almac bought the 40 acres from Sam Kriebel, 89, who still lives on an adjacent parcel in clear view from the plant. Kriebel was a dairy farmer, and he said his family had had the land for seven generations. A speculator sold the land to the family after getting it through William Penn, Kriebel said, adding that Washington's troops camped there in 1778.
"I thought I was getting too old to farm," Kriebel said, "and I thought it would be in the best interests of the township if I sold it. And I really liked Allen McClay."