Zero Zone keeps cool under regulatory, competitive pressures

Made in Milwaukee

Zero Zone Inc.
110 N. Oakridge Drive, North Prairie
Industry: Commercial refrigeration
Employees: 430 (250 in Wisconsin)

You probably walk by products made by Zero Zone Inc. every time you go to the grocery store and don’t even realize it. If that’s the case, it’s exactly what the North Prairie-based maker of commercial refrigeration systems is going for.

Zero Zone recently completed a new technology center that helps show off its line of door and open cases.

“We make sure it’s well-lit and we, in particular as a company, look at trying to make the case as invisible as possible so that the products inside are what you see and not the case,” said Carl Petersen, Zero Zone marketing and advertising manager.

Zero Zone, started in a barn in 1961, helped to pioneer the market for door cases and now counts retailers throughout the Americas as its customers. Locally, that includes Sendik’s, Whole Foods, Pick ’n Save and Metro Market stores. The company also is expanding its offerings this year to include open cases.

“That’s a departure for us, but it’s also an answer to our customers,” said Glenn Kormanik, vice president and general manager of Zero Zone’s display case division.

For a firm that markets itself as “the responsive company,” answering to customers is an important part of doing business. That means expanding product lines, offering more choices as standard options, intimately understanding customer needs and fostering a company culture that keeps the client front of mind.

“People who work at Zero Zone understand the customer is the most important thing to us, and we execute on that on a daily basis,” Kormanik said.

Petersen said Zero Zone has more than doubled sales in the 11 years he’s been with the company and employment has increased significantly, too. The North Prairie facility encompasses 160,000 square feet for production, offices and research and development, including a recently completed technology center.

Roughly 300 cases are assembled at the North Prairie site each week, while a Waukesha facility holds finished products and produces foam insulated panels. A Minnesota location focuses on the systems used to keep cases cool and other applications, like cold storage or even ice rinks.

Many of the components for Zero Zone’s cases come from a network of suppliers around the country, although it is concentrated in the Midwest, Kormanik said. But design and engineering is still an in-house task, and it’s one that requires balancing evolving regulations from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy with customer desires for aesthetics, functionality and cost savings.

“There’s always that back-and-forth between what something looks like, its appeal and how much energy it uses, but it’s all going in the direction of how do we limit the amount of energy being used,” Petersen said.

Different situations call for different coolants, but Zero Zone’s top-end door case can offer an 84 percent energy savings over a typical open case, according to Petersen.

Even though a door case is better positioned to keep cooling costs down compared to an open case, the demand for open cases still exists, as shown by Zero Zone’s decision to enter the market.

“There still are merchandisers who feel that if you put a door in between the shopper and the product, that that limits sales,” Petersen said. “We see that as kind of a myth, but it’s being dissipated over time.”

The industry is also seeing other changes. More retailers have added food offerings, meaning Zero Zone now sells to the likes of Dollar Tree and even Linens ’n Things. At the same time, online offerings have increased, with companies like Amazon and Walmart offering grocery delivery and subscription services rising in popularity.

“There are things that look positive and then there are things that look negative and we’re just trying to make sure we’re on top of all of them and see which way the industry is going,” Kormanik said.

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Arthur covers banking and finance and the economy at BizTimes while also leading special projects as an associate editor. He also spent five years covering manufacturing at BizTimes. He previously was managing editor at The Waukesha Freeman. He is a graduate of Carroll University and did graduate coursework at Marquette. A native of southeastern Wisconsin, he is also a nationally certified gymnastics judge and enjoys golf on the weekends.

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