KU to name one of its engineering institutes after a ‘wonderful’ company; founders have given hundreds of millions to universities

photo by: Shutterstock

Wonderful brand pistachios are pictured in this Shutterstock photo. A KU engineering center has a new partnership with The Wonderful Company.

Forget the saying “a tough nut to crack.” Evidently, the real problem with nuts is what to do with all the darn shells once you have cracked them.

Indeed, there was a California company that had 25 acres of pistachio shells and no good idea of what to do with them. Pistachio shells don’t biodegrade very well, and it didn’t seem like it would be environmentally responsible to just dump them in a landfill.

Enter the University of Kansas’ Institute for Sustainable Engineering. That center, which is located within KU’s School of Engineering, figured out ways to use the pistachio shells in packing materials, recycled cardboard, and even figured out how to change the nature of the shells so they could be used as an ingredient in some pet foods, according to KU Chancellor Douglas Girod.

Figuring out how to crack the code on that problem may lead to a great relationship between the company and the KU center.

Actually, the company would say it is a “wonderful” relationship.

It really would. The name of the company is The Wonderful Company, and Girod received approval from the Kansas Board of Regents this week to attach the company name to the engineering center. It now will be known as The Wonderful Company Institute for Sustainable Engineering.

Don’t let the name fool you. This isn’t some company built on hyperbole, and, no, it has nothing to do with the Mr. Wonderful who is the cantankerous “shark” on the television program “The Shark Tank.” He may wish it did.

Instead, The Wonderful Company is a $5 billion, privately held company that is a big player in several industries. According to its website, it is the world’s largest grower of tree nuts — thus all the pistachio shells — the largest U.S. citrus grower with its Halo brand of mandarin oranges, and the operator of the largest floral delivery business in the country through its Teleflora network. It also does pretty well in the bottled water business. It owns the Fiji water brand.

photo by: Shutterstock

Wonderful brand Halos mandarin oranges are pictured in this Shutterstock file photo. A KU engineering center has a new partnership with The Wonderful Company.

Based in the Los Angeles area, the company is a big land owner in California’s Central Valley, where it has drawn some public criticism for the amount of water its operations consume. But the company’s founders also are big supporters of environmental sustainability initiatives. In a note that I’m sure is particularly interesting to KU, the founders — the husband and wife team of Stewart and Lynda Resnick — especially support university programs related to sustainability.

In 2019, the couple made a $750 million pledge to the California Institute of Technology, which houses the Resnick Sustainability Institute. The $750 million donation is widely regarded as one of the largest donations ever to a U.S. university.

Girod has not specifically said how much KU has received from the Resnicks or The Wonderful Company. He told Regents that the company over a number of years has made contributions in excess of $5 million to support operations and research at the KU institute, in addition to providing money for scholarships.

After coming up with solutions for the pistachio shells, Girod said KU and the company entered into a profit sharing agreement where a “sizable portion” of the revenue from the pistachio shell products now comes back to KU.

As for the KU institute itself, it is led by Mark Shiflett, who is a distinguished professor in chemical and petroleum engineering at KU. He was with DuPont, the chemical giant, for almost 30 years, and is regarded as an expert in new refrigerant mixtures that are more environmentally friendly than traditional refrigerants. The institute lists projects in energy, food, climate and water as part of its research portfolio.


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