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Eyes on the prize For Princetel’s Barry Zhang, focusing on the environment is as important as success in manufacturing

Barry Zhang, CEO, Princetel.-(AARON HOUSTON)

Princetel is the greenest company you’ve never heard of.

This manufacturing firm has received higher recognition than any other for its facility in Hamilton, which was recently rated at the top, platinum level by the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, program — something no other industrial site in the state has accomplished.

But Princetel doesn’t carry much in the way of name recognition. As a manufacturer of fiber-optic rotary joints — one of a handful of such manufacturers worldwide — the company is not in a line of business that lends itself to lots of press.

Barry Zhang, the company’s president, didn’t go all-in on sustainability to change that.

Zhang had a deeper reason for the company’s unprecedented green focus. For him, it goes back to a village he used to visit as a child outside of Beijing, China, a small community where his grandfather had once been a local leader.

“I remember we would go out to a river there to catch turtles and fish,” he said. “There would be children playing around inside and outside of this beautiful, green village.”

When he graduated from college and returned, after his grandfather had passed away, he was surprised to find the same village devoid of people. The river he had known dried up and the trees were cut down; it was a dreary place set in the suffocating smog of an industrialized city.

“I was really heartbroken to have what I saw as my childhood paradise destroyed like that,” he said, adding later that his goal became to “make a positive impact on the environment as a business owner.”

Zhang, along with other Princetel officials, has spearheaded the investment of millions into maintaining as low a carbon footprint as possible for a manufacturing operation.

That effort began with the literal foundations of the company: its 43,000-square-foot headquarters in Hamilton, which was once designated a brownfield property by the Environmental Protection Agency for the layers of manufacturing fluid contamination it sat on.

Sustaining talent

Barry Zhang proudly said fewer than five employees have left Princetel since its inception in 2000. And the company’s focus on green solutions is not irrelevant in its high retention rate, he added. Among other things, the company, which has appeared on NJBIZ’s Best Places to Work list, offers additional cash incentives to employees who take public transportation or walk to work.

“Our employee pool is just like the general population,” he said. “There are quite a few who care as much as I do (about sustainability); then there are those who like to see it, but aren’t as interested; others may not care at all, but it doesn’t bother them.”

The emphasis on sustainability at work has never been a source of negative feedback, Zhang said. Some might not even perceive the difference, he added.

“People probably won’t even realize that hot water coming out of a faucet is solar-heated, for instance,” he said. “And it’s not as if the building is dark and cold or way too hot. It’s actually more comfortable than any other. There’s no compromise there.”

“It was really a common practice once — that anything you didn’t need would just be poured somewhere,” Zhang said. “Harsh chemicals were dumped and they just built another section on top of it. … Among (the substances) we found in the soil was a 15-foot-long oil tank with oil in it.”

Princetel’s leaders cleaned up the mess over the course of four years at their own expense.

During that time, there were numerous green features implemented in the building. More than 900 solar panels were installed on the roof, a system that generates enough kilowatt-hours of energy to offset the power demands of about 20 residential homes, Zhang said.

Zhang likes to think in tangible terms about the company’s environmental impact. In fact, he said, when the company moved from its previous location in Pennington to Hamilton, which was more central for employees, there was a collective reduction of 30,000 miles in annual driving — enough to offset the emissions of about three cars.

Between all of the green energy equipment added to Princetel’s new base — a lengthy list that includes a rainwater harvesting system — the company is achieving significant cost savings.

“An average building of our type has energy costs averaging $3 dollars per square foot per year; ours is less than a dollar per year,” Zhang explained.

While making the facility into a shining example of green energy, Zhang also sought to institute sustainable practices in the products that Princetel manufactures, such as using recycled paper and designing eco-friendly packaging.

The major commitments energy haven’t hurt the company’s prospects. Zhang reported that Princetel has been growing at a clip of 20 or 30 percent each year. The company, which brought in $8 million in revenue last year, is on track to hit $10 million in 2017.

For Zhang, the environmental measures fit into a gestalt of how he believes a business should operate.

“Our higher-level philosophy is about just being more responsible,” he said.

Brett Johnson

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