From the Editor: ICI fades into history

June 2, 2008
One of the greatest names in the chemical industry is disappearing

The news in late April from AkzoNobel that it would retire the ICI name saddened me because it seemed an ignominious end for what had been one of the world’s leading chemical companies. ICI was only a shadow of its former self when Amsterdam-based AkzoNobel completed its takeover a few months ago. However, I remember the company in what many might consider its heyday in the 1960s through 1980s, when it was one of the top five global chemical companies and dominated the British chemical industry.

In the 1970s when I was the London-based European Editor for another magazine, I regularly visited ICI sites throughout Britain. Sadly, many of these now are derelict or underutilized. My initial visit to ICI’s Agricultural Division Office (headquarters) in Billingham in Northeast England remains vivid in my mind. It was the first time I had encountered a “paternoster,” a continuously moving open elevator that you jump on and off. That building now is abandoned and dilapidated, with demolition expected to be completed later this year. At least nearby Norton Hall has escaped such a fate. That elegant residence served as a corporate guest house in those days. It has since been converted into luxury apartments.

ICI was formed at the end of 1926 through the merger of four British chemical companies.  Sales totaled £27 million in 1927, resulting in profits of £4.5 million. The next year the company built an impressive office at Millbank in London where the headquarters remained for 70 years. (OFGEM, Britain’s electricity and gas regulator, now occupies the building.)

In the 1930s and 1940s, the company made big strides in plastics, developing polyethylene and polyester fiber, and gaining significant commercial success with acrylic sheet. Subsequently, it added to its plastics portfolio, e.g., through production of diphenylmethane di-isocyanate (MDI), one of two key feedstocks for polyurethane foam, and polyamides. In the 1960s, ICI introduced polyethersulfone and polyether ether ketone.

The company’s palette of products also included paint and pesticides, both areas in which it developed a substantial presence. But ICI also looked beyond traditional chemicals. In its early years the firm parlayed expertise in dyestuffs into its first pharmaceutical products, laying the foundation for what would become a major pharmaceutical division. In the 1960s, James Black, later knighted and awarded the Nobel Prize, pioneered the development of beta blockers for heart treatment. The introduction of other noteworthy drugs would follow.

In the 1970s ICI developed a process to develop single-cell protein from petroleum. While this so-called Pruteen didn’t succeed in the market, it helped the company advance more generally in fermentation technology and biotechnology.

In 1984, ICI became the first British firm to attain £1 billion in annual profits.

However, in the next decade, the company began to shrink. It spun off its pharmaceutical and agrochemicals operations to form Zeneca (which later merged with Sweden’s Astra Group to create AstraZeneca, which in 2000 combined its agrochemicals business with that of Novartis to form Syngenta). In 1997, it sold its bulk and intermediate chemicals assets to Huntsman. The ICI that AkzoNobel bought was a company largely focused on paints and specialty chemicals.

ICI was more than a major chemicals producer — it broke new ground in thinking about technology. For instance, the company pioneered the concept of process intensification — in which production takes place in far-smaller-than-conventional equipment. This can significantly cut capital costs and also can provide safety and environmental benefits. Work at ICI by Colin Ramshaw was the genesis behind today’s spinning disk reactor (see Tiny reactors aim for big role).

Of even wider impact on the chemical industry was ICI’s focus on safety, which goes all the way back to predecessor company Brunner-Mond. ICI took the lead in addressing hazards (paternosters notwithstanding). For instance, it did much of the formative work on Hazard and Operability Analysis (Hazops). Trevor Kletz of ICI not only championed many of the efforts there but effectively exhorted and guided the industry as a whole to take a more proactive approach. Fortunately for all of us, though long retired, he continues to write about safety issues (e.g., Check for human errors and and has published his memoirs “By accident: a life preventing them in industry.”

The ICI name may disappear but the company’s legacy certainly will endure.

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