Future Looks Bright for Two Richmond Plants

March 19, 2003

Although they might receive less attention than their larger commodity-chemical cousins, specialty,"batch, toll processor and other small- and mid-sized chemical manufacturers are no less important in terms of products and economic contributions. I recently toured two such facilities in the Richmond, Va., area, and spoke with key facility personnel about their challenges and opportunities.

Anticipating trends

Wella Manufacturing of Virginia Inc., Richmond, is a manufacturing and distribution center for Wella Corp. USA, headquartered in Woodland Hills, Calif. The ISO 9002-certified facility has approximately 250 employees and produces everything from permanent wave kits to 700 different hair color shades for the professional salon market.

The company watches industry trends carefully, says Wella Manufacturing President Hans Karras. Flexibility is essential in the hair-care industry. Right now, he sees an increasing demand for "extreme" wax products and energy-intensive hot-fill products. "Lifecycles are shorter for [hair-care] products," stresses Karras. "We have people tracking, trying to be a little ahead of the trend."

Looking into the future, the Richmond Wella plant might well be deemed a land of opportunity. After all, the professional hair-care market is virtually recession-proof. To keep up with demand, said Karras, the facility is adding a third shift. In addition, the site encompasses enough land to allow an eventual doubling of the facility's size, if needed.

As I walked into the processing area, I noticed something rather unusual, but certainly not unpleasant. I could smell nary a trace of ammonia or any of the other odors typically associated with professional hair-care products.

Karras points out that systems within the facility's compounding area now are closed and fully automated, eliminating fumes and odors ," as well as heavy lifting. Although high capital costs have made the personal-care industry somewhat slow to adopt automation technologies, he says, advances made thus far are allowing the Wella facility to handle larger volumes with fewer, but more highly trained people. Some processes now are "almost foolproof," adds Karras, so product temperature, timing and quality have increased dramatically.

Automation will continue to be one of the facility's greatest challenges in the years to come, maintains Karras, in addition to staffing-related concerns. A highly competitive Richmond job market can make it difficult to find and retain highly qualified personnel, especially since Wella "can't pay what the giants do," he stresses. However, the facility believes in the potential of its employees and rewards those who perform their jobs well. Case in point: The head of the IT department originally was a forklift driver.

Because the facility tends to run more than one type of material or color on the same pieces of equipment, says Karras, equipment cleaning also is a concern. In the past, water and chemicals were used to flush away remaining color or materials ," a process that was expensive and time-consuming. However, notes Karras, Wella reduced costs and slashed cleaning times by switching to a ball-type pigging system for material recovery.

Managing growth

The first thing I noticed on a tour of the Alloy Polymers Inc. facility in Richmond was a wall covered with flags from around the world. The flags represent the diversity of the workforce at this minority-owned contract manufacturing facility, which specializes in compounding a wide range of engineering thermoplastics and resins.

Alloy Polymers believes in partnering with its clients for product development, explains Anthony Bernardo, director, license products. "They provide the formulas; we do the experiments here, develop the processes and manufacture the product," he says.

Alloy Polymers is a company that "understands what customer expectations are and what success is," stresses Paul Bryant, a vice president with the company. The company subscribes to what it calls a "signature process" ," one that considers both quality and safety in product engineering.

With the purchase of a Basell's polypropylene compounding facility in Gahanna, Ohio, last June, Alloy Polymers essentially doubled in size. Continued growth ," through additional business and expanded services in areas such as enhanced color capabilities and cleanroom capabilities for pure products ," currently is one of the company's major focuses.

Product licensing also will provide a growth channel. "There's a lot of technology that people develop and don't want to bother with," contends Bernardo. "We can take out licenses and bring [the technologies] to market." The company's initial entry into this area is the Baselle Hivalloy material, he adds.

The road to growth certainly will include some bumps along the way. According to Bernardo, the recent acquisition brought with it an integration challenge ," the company now needs to find a common culture. In addition, it must meet that challenge without wavering from its commitment to continuous quality improvements.

Alloy Polymers believes it provides a valuable niche service set, adds Bernardo. It can take on the projects that allow its customers "to focus on their core businesses and remain innovative."

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