Nicholas H. Des Champs
Class of 1962, BS; Class of 1967, Ph.D.
With the energy recovery products that Nick Des Champs’ entrepreneurial company has placed in the international field, the Virginia Tech mechanical engineering alumnus estimates “a worldwide savings of 6,500 barrels of oil a day.” Since his products have a lifetime of up to 30 years, the number of barrels saved could double in five years to some 13,000. If the conservative number of the cost of $70 for a barrel of oil were to be used, the yearly savings becomes more than $332 million, not to mention the reduction in dependence on this fuel source.
Not bad bragging rights for a boy who spent his first year after high school mixing mortar and laying bricks for his father, an entrepreneur in his own right who had only finished eighth grade. “My father was a very motivated, very bright man who did not have the opportunities I had,” Dr. Des Champs says. The middle child of three sons who attended Douglas Freeman High School in Henrico County, Virginia, he became the first member of his family to receive a college degree.
His opportunities for higher education arose because Dr. Des Champs saved the money he made working with his dad, and he landed a co-op job with Ford Motor Company in Dearborn, Michigan, for seven academic quarters. When he graduated as a member of the Class of 1961, he went to work for Atlantic Research Corporation (ARC), making just a little more than the $2.50 an hour his father had paid him as a mason. “Dad let me know that too,” he laughs today.
However, new challenges quickly presented themselves. At ARC, he was tasked with figuring out how to help the U.S. Marine Corps build makeshift runways to land military aircraft in combat zones. He devised an “anchoring device” that provided the jet with a stable landing area, and in doing so, earned his first of 19 patents in 1962.
Dr. Des Champs discovered he had a skill for solving problems, and his intellectual curiosity led him back to Virginia Tech to pursue his graduate degrees. Eventually, J.B. Jones became his major professor, a man Dr. Des Champs describes as “unbelievably precise, an excellent teacher, and my mentor.” When he was presented with his doctoral degree in 1967, Dr. Des Champs and his classmate, Frank Bliss, made history as the first Ph.D.s in ME to graduate from Virginia Tech.
His next stop was an engineering firm in New Hampshire called Sander Associates where he spent four years as an engineering manager. His skills in heat transfer were tested as he worked on projects as varied as the re-entry of orbiting spacecraft into the Earth’s atmosphere to artificial heart development.
“When I look at all of the forks in the road, it’s amazing,” Dr. Des Champs recalls. “The job with Sanders was exciting, and it led to my next opportunity. I had come up with a way to effectively cool submarine detection devices and in order to make sure I was not infringing on another patent, I went to Donbar Development Corporation in New York City to confer with them. At the meeting, they said they liked how I presented myself and they felt that my heat transfer background would fit in well with their company’s goals, so they offered me a job at twice my (then) current salary.”
Since Donbar’s focus was patent development, Dr. Des Champs was in heaven. His job was to travel the world investigating ideas and negotiate their purchases. Donbar would further develop the concepts and then resell them to industry when they proved to be valuable. For four years, Dr. Des Champs prospered with Donbar until the recession of the 1970s struck. But again, the fork in the road proved fortuitous.
Since Donbar now owed him back pay, he was able to negotiate the right to perform a $100,000 Air Force contract originally intended to be performed by Donbar. The work he performed on the air-to-air heat exchanger for the F15 fighter jet allowed him to follow his father’s entrepreneurial ways, and open Des Champs Technologies in 1974 in the middle of the oil crisis and a deep recession.
“We took the technology we developed under the Air Force contract and applied it to the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) industry,” Dr. Des Champs says. His timing was perfect as the oil crisis caused energy prices to soar, and Des Champs Technologies was offering cost effective HVAC systems.
In the late 1980s when energy conservation was no longer in vogue, Dr. Des Champs made two timely decisions. He moved his company from New Jersey back to his less costly home state of Virginia, settling in Buena Vista. And the tech savvy engineer developed the Wringer®, the first product in the field that allowed the control of humidity inside a building without overcooling it and simultaneously reducing the cost of dehumidification by more than 30 percent. The Wringer® was named Plant Engineering magazine’s product of the year in 1992.
The need for the Wringer® was a result of the energy crisis in the 1970s when architects started designing very tight, often windowless buildings. Their occupants soon started to complain of poor ventilation, and the term “sick building syndrome” was identified as a major health hazard for the occupants. The Wringer® solved this problem and allowed Des Champs Technologies to move from a $7 million a year operation to some $30 million in an eight-year period. “Our technology was copied by just about every manufacturer out there,” Dr. Des Champs says.
In running his business through four very different decades, Dr. Des Champs’ company survived four recessions, and managed to build the most respected and largest firm in the energy recovery field. When he sold it to Munters Corporation, a billion-dollar-a-year business located in Stockholm, Sweden, in 2007, he remained as the executive vice-president of its dehumidification division until July 2009.
Today, he continues to act as a consultant for the company, through his ownership of eForay Consulting LLC of Las Vegas. “We remain the most profitable, shining light of Munters,” he says. At the end of 2008, sales of the Des Champs Products Division were at $50 million for the 225-employee company.
His successes secured him the honor of Master Entrepreneur of the Year in 1997 for the states of Maryland, Delaware, and Virginia from the Master Entrepreneur Council. The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air Conditioning Engineers named him a Fellow for his accomplishments in the development and promotion of air-to-air energy recovery and indirect evaporative cooling.
He also has earned a number of accolades with his alma mater during the years. When Dr. Des Champs returned to Virginia in 1989, he renewed his involvement with the ME department, helping to found its Advisory Board in 1997. He has employed Virginia Tech co-op students and financed research projects. He and his wife, Becky, have hosted Virginia Tech alumni events in their home, and they are members of Ut Prosim and the Committee of 100. He also served a four-year stint on the College of Engineering’s Advisory Board.
The couple continue to reside in Fincastle and maintain their permanent residence in Las Vegas. They have been married for 45 years and have a married daughter, Nikki, living in Richmond, Virginia, who has given them two grandchildren, Nicole and Ryan, and a son, Doug, living in Charlotte, North Carolina, who is a graphic designer.
Class of: 1962, 1967
Year Inducted into Academy: 2010