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THE PORT OF CHARLESTON

50 Years and Counting - WeylChem US Envisions a Bright Future

June 27, 2017

Jim Tatum
Chronicle-Independent
jtatum@chronicle-independent.com

WeylChem US recently celebrated an important milestone -- 50 years as an important Kershaw County corporate citizen.

But that 50-year milestone marked an exciting rebrith as well as an important anniversary. It was a commemoration of an interesting and successful history, but it also was a celebration of a bright future, WeylChem officials say.

In fact, probably very few people know that barely two years ago, WeylChem US was on the verge of shutting down for good. However, a new CEO with a new vision has pulled off what was thought by many to be highly unlikely, if not largely impossible: a complete reversal from operating in a major deficit to earning significant profits -- all in the space of a year.

That turnaround has not only kept the plant open, it convinced the parent company, German-based ICIG, to invest $13 million. 

To understand this accomplishment and what it means for the future bears looking at the past 50 years. 

One person who has been there for most of these years is WeylChem's HSEQ and Logistics Director Brad Branham, who started with Hardwicke in 1972. 

"Not many people rally know our story, but they should -- it's a good one," he said. 

Starting as a family-run operation by Dr. James Hardwicke and WilHelm Frings, the company would go through several owners -- Hardwicke, Ethyl, BTP, Clariant -- before becoming acquired by ICIG, a German-based company. 

"Dr. Hardwicke and Mr. Frings had worked for Cardinal Chemical in Columbia and decided they wanted to put together a small company they could run themselves. They bought the property -- which would have been considered to be way out in the country back then -- and put up one of those military barracks. That was the start of what you see today."

Dr. Hardwicke was a Ph.D. chemist and Mr. Frings was an engineer. During that time, there was a worldwide push in the agricultural chemical industry to find a safer alternative to insecticides like DDT, Heptachlor and Chlordane, while highly effective against pestiferous insects, was found to have a negative impact on the environment. Certain speciies of birds that had eaten the treated insects were producing eggs that were not hardening properly, causing grave concerns about their extinction. 

They successfully synthesized a naturally occurring molecule, one that no one had successfully chemically produced. With this success, synthetic pyrethroids were introdcued to the world on a commercial scale. Everyone in the agricultural industry wanted this new crop protection compound, Branham said. 

"That molecule is what built the business," Branham said. "For years, the plant was the only one in the world that made that molecule -- because Dr. Hardwicke had the patent."

In 1978, Ethyl Corporation bought the Hardwicke site, which it would operate until 1990. In 1993, the British company BTP, seeking to enter the agro-chemical field, would buy the site and operate it until 2000, when it sold the site to Clariant, a Swiss company. 

The present company, ICIG, bought the site from Clariant in 2007. 

Branham, who has seen the site grow from three storage tanks and an Army Barrack to a major industrial physical plant, has also seen the corresponding triumphs and disappointments, he said. In the last 10-15 years, the company has experienced challenging times, including work force reductions, and safety and environmental issues. 

By the time ICIG acquired the site, the workforce had shrunk from more than 300 to around 225 and the company was operating in a severe deficit, he said. 

"The whole industry -- everyone was negatively affected by the downturn in 2008, but the agro chemical market was hit especially hard," Branham noted. "About 80 percent of WeylChem's sales were in agro-chemicals. Perspectives were negative, with a major risk of unsustainability." 

In other words, things were looking bleak; in fact, in 2015, ICIG was on the verge of closing the plant for good, Branham said. 

Enter Philippe Robin, a young French executive with the company who had made a name within ICIG for an affinity and facility for change management and a proven track record for turning around failing operations. Robin was offered the opportunity to come to Kershaw County to try to resuscitate the struggling site. 

He accepted. 

"There was a great sense of urgency here," Robin said. "We had to develop our recovery plan and implement it quickly if we were going to successfully turn it around." 

Robin outlined his plan to the local board of directors. Basically, the recovery called for a double approach. The first aspect called for consolidating the physical plant, which had gorwn somewhat haphazardly, into two well-defined operations. That meant shutting down operations that were no longer being utilized as well as reconfiguring and upgrading facilities, machinery, and equipment. But it also meant sprucing up the physical plant. The scruffy Leland cypress, scrub oak and other randome trees and undergrowth originally meant to buffer the plant from passer-by on I-20 were removed and the area re-landscaped for a much more inviting, open look. Buildings were repainted and refurbished and work areas modernized. 

Thus, the physical transformation has been both aesthetic and utilitarian. 

The second aspect called for improving the plant's competiveness. This meant redefining staffing, identifying and pursuing aggressive cost savings, and reviewing the company's purchase strategy. Just as important, it called for re-investing a significant portion of the savings realized back into the plant and into the people, Robin noted. 

That encompasses much more than the obvious tangibles of salary and benefits. It means clearly outlining the mission and the expectations, providing the means and the support for employees to achieve those expectations, investing in infrastructure to make for a much more safe and pleasant work environment and rewarding positive outcomes, he said. 

"For me, money is money -- it's important -- but people are far more important," Robin said. "People are the company. If they have good balance then the company will do well. We are people; we are not robots. Everyone needs and deserves that balance; there is nothing more important than good health and good family. That's what we are trying to acheive here."

It comes down to respect, Robin said. Give your people respect, treat them well, give them the tools they need and leeway to do the job and great things will happen for everyone. 

Robin is also very passionate and very serious about safety; employee safety is his top priority, he said. To that end, the company has and will continue to invest in new, state-of-the-art environmentally friendly technologies and equipment. The company no longer manufacturers or works with triamethyamine (TMA) compounds, whcih was a source of a number of order issues years ago and Robin's plan calls for working with products that are far more environmentally friendly than ever before.

Education and training is equally, if not more important, Robin added.

Robin noted change can be difficult to achieve because it can be difficult to accept, so the key to WeylChem's success relied heavily on buy-in from both the board and the employees.

That is exactly what happened and because of that willingness to embrace the changes, WeylChem has achieved remarkable success in a short amount of time. Two years ago, the company was operating at a significant loss; last year, the turnaround created a profit margin large enough to grant bonuses to all employees. 

Another exciting piece of news was the recent acquisition of a contract to produce a resin molecule for another company. While Robin said he could not divulge the name of the client, this development is especially exciting because the client has never before outsourced such a project. 

Branham agreed, praising Robin's vision and leadership.

"We have worked very hard -- but we've had a blast doing it!" Branham said. "I have witnessed different management styles and seen six different companies here and this is by far a much different feeling with the group. We are very proud to be here."

Robin downplays his role, saying only that he is very pleased with his employees' accomplishments and is confident the company will achieve even greater successes. "When we were recognized by the company, when we were told they were going to invest this $13 million in us, I was so incredibly proud of our employees here," Robin said. "They worked so hard. This absolutely happened because of them."

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"Kershaw County has a wonderful manufacturing base because we have a 'manufacturing attitude' about us. We are well-positioned for industry with convenient availability to land, sea, and air access to U.S. and world markets. Companies can look forward to a growing workforce to keep pace with their own growth."
-- Peggy McLean, Kershaw County Economic Development Director