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Going underground: Kansas City's caves provide high-quality home to Ceva and Virbac

With two leading animal health companies taking their warehousing and distribution facilities underground, Animal Pharm editor Joseph Harvey visited SubTropolis in Kansas City to see how caves offer the quality and safety the firms need.

The word 'cave' is slightly misleading when describing the 'world's largest underground business complex' – a trademarked slogan.

Built into a limestone mine, SubTropolis is far from being a cave.

"It's a skyscraper on its side," explains Michael Bell, vice president of Hunt Midwest's industrial and commercial teams. "Sometimes it feels like being in a big office building."

SubTropolis by numbers

A total workforce of approximately 1,700 are employed in SubTropolis. They belong to a roster of 55 companies.

It features 6.5 miles of lighted and paved roads, as well as over 400 truck dock locations.

SubTropolis is built in limestone that is 270 million years old.

The strength of the limestone is 18,000-24,000 pounds per square inch, which makes it six times sturdier than concrete.

Despite being a cave, flooding is not a risk at SubTropolis – it is 12 feet above the 500-year flood plain.

Hunt Midwest is a real estate firm based in Kansas City. It is also the owner of SubTropolis – a 55 million square-foot space developed by the previous American football team owner Lamar Hunt, who not only headed the Kansas City Chiefs but also founded the American Football League and Major League Soccer.

"In the 1940s the area was mined for construction materials and no-one ever thought about what it would be used for after," Mr Bell told Animal Pharm. The 'a-ha moment' – ultimately the spark that created SubTropolis – came when construction equipment was kept in the caves over the winter, to great effect.

Companies like Ford and Pilsbury then began using the mines as a storage space in the 1960s. "With a drill and dynamite" the owners expanded the space by two miles, creating a potential home for new clients. Ford is still a SubTropolis tenant, along with other high-profile clients such as the US National Archives and Records Administration, and the country's Postal Service.

The key characteristics of SubTropolis are its quality in terms of consistent product storage temperature, high standards of security and access to distribution infrastructure, such as interstates.

"The complex naturally breathes through its several entrances, and with 200 feet of limestone above this facility, it is naturally insulated and maintains a constant temperature of 70 degrees, so it's sustainable," added Mr Bell.

Around 90% of the US can be reached from SubTropolis in two days, said Mr Bell – hard evidence that not only is the Kansas City area a hub for animal health but also for logistics and distribution.

Ryan Tompkins, manager of sales and leasing at Hunt Midwest, said not only is the firm able to expand the available space at SubTropolis very quickly, it is also on the lookout for more animal health companies to become tenants.

While the complex offers some spaces on a month-to-month basis – more suited for smaller firms – Mr Bell said SubTropolis' clients tend to be more long term "50,000 square-foot tenants and above".

"KC is a unique city underground," added Mr Bell. "Around 10% of the city's industrial market is underground."

Of the 20 million square feet of storage space available in Kansas City, 6.1 million square feet belongs to SubTropolis.

Ceva intent on consolidating in caves

Ceva Animal Health has been a SubTropolis tenant for almost four years. When it first became a client in 2013, the company consolidated its US warehousing capabilities at SubTropolis. This saw it bring together operations from Kansas City, St Louis and New Jersey in the caves.

During 2015, Ceva extended its available space in the complex and now has 14 people working across 90,000 square feet of SubTropolis. The company has the option to yet further grow its warehousing at the facility. Ceva aims to further consolidate its warehousing in SubTropolis by bringing its vaccines to the complex. The company's vaccines are currently housed at another location in Kansas City.

Craig Wallace, chief executive of Ceva's North American and Pacific businesses, highlighted other key selling points of SubTropolis. He noted the access to the four nearby interstates as a significant boost to the delivery of products to Ceva's distributors in all directions across the US.

Mr Wallace also pointed out the underground nature of the complex is perfect for security against theft, vandalism and severe weather.

"You don't have to worry about the quality of storage here," Mr Wallace told Animal Pharm. "There's no weather problems down here. I've seen warehouse issues where products have been damaged by the weather before. That just can't happen here."

He also said the facility is recognized by leading regulatory authorities: "When we're talking to the FDA, USDA or EPA, they're all familiar with the facility. That's a huge help."

Virbac set to become tenants

Soon to join Ceva as a SubTropolis neighbor, is another North American business of a French animal health company – Virbac.

The firm is currently in the process of moving its warehousing and distribution from St Louis to the underground complex. Like Ceva, Virbac is also going through a consolidation process for its warehousing. This move will bring together operations from St Louis, St Joseph and Fort Worth. In time, Virbac intends to house all of its product lines in SubTropolis.

The company will take up 150,000 square feet of the complex, where it initially expects to employ around 10 people. Virbac is currently staffing these roles and conducting training – the move will come when Virbac gains approval from the Missouri Pharmacy Board later this year.

Paul Hays, the company's president and chief executive of North American operations, told Animal Pharm: "Kansas City was the right fit. This facility is at the epicentre of the animal health corridor and from a GMP point-of-view, we are able to store products at a constant temperature, which is perfect. It's cost efficient and disaster recovery is good here too."

Mr Hays has in fact worked in SubTropolis before, when he was previously with Coopers Animal Health in the late 1980s.

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