HISTORY OF CHEMPLAST, INC.
By Wilt Hawkins Based on a Talk in 1986
The history of Chemplast and Norton Chemplast is really a history of TeflonŽ, so let's start there. TeflonŽ was born in a DuPont laboratory in April of 1938. Dr. Roy Plunkett was performing an experiment using a precursor of today's FreonŽ. Having stored a pressurized cylinder of the gas for a period of time, he discovered - upon checking the pressure, and then the weight - that the cylinder had zero pressure and an unchanged weight. The gas had polymerized into an inert, whitish fluoropolymer powder. Thus was born PTFE or as it was later trade-named, TeflonŽ.
The World War II years
During World War II, PTFE was used in the Manhattan project, created by the government to develop the Atomic Bomb. It was used at Oakridge, TN as a gasket and packing material in their gaseous diffusion piping system handling uranium hexafluoride, a very toxic and corrosive gas. Only TeflonŽ could do the job; the second use for the resin was in naval and air borne radar systems as a coax cable dielectric having the needed properties of heat resistance, toughness to withstand vibration, and a low loss factor. Also, at about this time it was molded into nose cones for a very effective weapon in World War II - the Proximity Fuse.
During the war, a cloud of secrecy descended over all TeflonŽ activities. During this period, DuPont developed a number of processing techniques. While the polymer was described as "precocious", it was somewhat intractable and very difficult to fashion useful articles using conventional methods. Techniques were borrowed from the powdered metal, ceramic, and plywood industries. During the war years, DuPont performed all processing and machining of TeflonŽ products in its pilot plant in Arlington, NJ. In 1946, DuPont decided to phase out of processing and entice other companies to get in it. DuPont's ultimate goal was to produce and sell the resin to processors, not to do the processing themselves.
Wilt Hawkins and Chemplast
In 1948, Wilt Hawkins graduated from Carnegie Tech and joined DuPont's Plastic Department. "It was my first taste of Teflon® PTFE. My job was to further develop processing techniques and the special equipment required, followed by assisting companies who wanted to start making products of PTFE."
"The event which changed my thinking was a visit to Houston, TX. A customer met me in an old model Ford. Six months later, he met me at the airport in a new Cadillac. I figured I was missing the boat. In 1954, Chemplast was started in Clifton, NJ in a $10/month attic with $3,000 of savings."
Within a year, we moved to an industrial park in East Newark, NJ, where there was plenty of space in which to grow. I think one of our most important achievements in those early days was the development of a multi-cavity system for extruding both PTFE rod and coaxial core. To the best of my knowledge, Chemplast was the first in the industry to accomplish multi-cavity ram extrusion. There may have been others doing it at that time, but I was not aware of it. To show you how unsuperstitious we were, our first multi-cavity rod die was designed to produce 13 rods simultaneously. When we applied the multi-cavity principle to coaxial core, however, we fell back to the luckier-sounding number of 7. In both instances, however, the technique worked like a charm, and, of course, this kind of capability gave us an immediate advantage over our competitors.
Bladder Molding Expedients
Our next venture was paste extrusion, followed closely by molding and automatic screw machining. In 1958, we achieved what I think was quite unique in PTFE processing by developing a method to mold various hollow shapes out of granular resin - shapes such as beakers, evaporating dishes, watch glasses, and the like. We called the process "bladder molding" at that time, instead of the more esoteric name it carries today of "isostatic molding". The idea came from a textbook on ceramics, and I believe we were perhaps the first to accomplish this feat.
I remember that our first attempt with bladder molding was to produce a 100 ml capacity beaker. I won't be so indelicate as to tell you what those first bladders were made of, but I can tell you we purchased them from a drug store. They were made of natural rubber latex and, as I remember, we were able to produce about six beakers from each one before it failed. Necessity can truly be called the mother of invention. A variety of products and processes followed: paste extrusion of slip-on insulation; molding of sheet, rod, and tubes; automatic screw machining of PTFE parts; and skiving of TeflonŽ film and tape.
Miles Powell Bolsters Sales and Marketing
In 1961, Chemplast made a giant and significant step forward in the marketing and sales area. It occurred in the form of Miles Powell, Jr., another DuPonter, who was then actively engaged in introducing DuPont's new meltable resin, FEP, to the industry. Miles came to us with a variety of talents - some inbred, some acquired. His energy and enthusiasm were certainly inborn. But others, like his professionalism and selling effectiveness, were acquired during the years he spent in the sales division of the Polychemicals Department of DuPont. Miles became our Executive Vice President and his many contributions toward the success of Chemplast have certainly matched, if not exceeded, mine.
More New Product Developments
Several other product developments occurred during the following years; there was a growing need for self-lubricating non-contaminating stopcocks in the laboratory. TeflonŽ was the answer. We designed a range of plug types for Corning and Kimble Glass. They were both functional and attractive, and today they are standard throughout the laboratory industry.
In 1963, we developed and patented a method for producing fibrous, porous structures of TeflonŽ in web form. The process consists of impregnating a woven or non-woven organic material, such as ordinary filter paper, with a TeflonŽ dispersion. The material is then passed through an oven at temperatures that bring about the fusion of the colloidal particles of TeflonŽ and the carbonizing of the supporting material. The final step consists of oxidizing out the residual carbon to obtain a pure form of fibrous-porous TeflonŽ. The final product is a true duplicate, or replica, if you will, of the original woven or non-woven structure. We trade named the product ZitexTM and it's being used today in a number of interesting medical, electronic, chemical, and mechanical applications.
In 1964, recognizing the coming importance of the melt processible fluoropolymers, we purchased our first screw extruder, designed specifically for the extrusion of FEP. One of our first successes was in the development and patenting of a special x-ray opaque, optically translucent catheter tubing of FEP. Also in 1964, we acquired Bonny Manufacturing, a company located in Action, MA and owned by Robert Bonnet, a most talented and innovative individual in the TeflonŽ industry.
In 1966, Chemplast moved to its present location in Wayne, NJ.
Marriage and a Friendly Divorce
The first customer for our FEP tubing was Deseret Pharmaceutical - a public company located in Provo, Utah. We developed a good relationship with them, and Chemplast was acquired by Deseret in November of 1969. Marriage with Deseret went quite well through 1970 and 1971. However, in June of 1972, they decided to spin us off, their shareholders receiving a minority interest in Chemplast and my buying back a controlling interest.
It was at this time in 1972 that I first became acquainted with Don Melville and the Norton Company. As some of you may remember, Norton had earlier acquired in 1966, the U.S. Stoneware Company, the originators of TygonTM tubing, and was interested in growing further into industrial plastics by acquiring Chemplast. Don was VP in charge of Corporate Development at that time. We were grateful for Norton's interest in us, but being so soon out of the divorce court with Deseret, we declined Norton's approach; but both companies agreed to stay in touch.
Chemplast Grows Rapidly and So Does the Paperwork
From 1972 on, it was a different ball game for Chemplast; we were public overnight with some 1,500 shareholders. There were quarterly reports, annual reports, and annual shareholders meetings. We suddenly had a new responsibility, our shareholders. Stock was traded in the over-the-counter market.
In 1973, we concluded an agreement with a Belgian company, ERTA, to use their technology for casting nylon in the form of standard and custom shapes. The casting operation was set-up in Hawthorne, NJ. Chemplast continued its growth. In 1974, it underwent a 50% expansion of its office and plant space. In 1977, we declared our first cash dividend for our shareholders.
By 1978, Chemplast's annual sales were approaching 15 million dollars. We employed approximately 250 people, and we occupied four plants. In April of that year, the company became listed on the American Stock Exchange. We had a strong domestic sales force and marketing group made up of approximately thirty people, most of whom had engineering degrees; and we also had an active export sales group, assisted by DuPont's personnel in foreign countries.
Chemplast, the House that TeflonŽ Built
By 1978, I think Chemplast could truly have been called the house that TeflonŽ built, along with DuPont. Together with DuPont, we could see the changes, the improvements, and the growth that was taking place in our industry. That "precocious plastic" of the early days had certainly lived up to its expectations. And to call PTFE an intractable polymer in 1978 may have been correct from the polymer chemist's standpoint, but it certainly no longer applied to our ability to fashion useful products from it. The list is almost endless. And, of course, the original PTFE polymer served another most useful purpose in our industry by being the progenitor, or the chemical granddaddy, if you will, of all the newer fluoropolymers and copolymers, which have followed such as FEP, TefzelŽ, PFA, and NafionŽ.
Friendly Tender Offer by Norton
Later in 1978, an important event occurred. Norton approached us again and this time we agreed to a friendly tender offer by Norton for 20% of our common stock. It was an opportunity for them to come to know us and for us to know them, and it gave those Chemplast shareholders, who wished so, to sell their stock at an attractive price. Don Melville, by now Norton's Executive Vice President, was assigned to our board. Later in 1979, Don was elevated to the position of President and Chief Operating Officer. We always kidded him by saying that he was elevated to these positions because of the valuable training and experience he gained at Chemplast's Board meetings.
The years from 1978 through 1981 saw continuing growth for Chemplast's new products: skived UHMW polyethylene film, Zitex G, shrinkable FEP tubing, laminates of Teflon® to various substrates, melt extrusion of fluoropolymer films, coextruded construction for medical tubing, etc. Sales grew from $15 million to $24 million - employees from 250 to over 400.
Acquisition of Brasiflon and Incoflon
In 1980, we assisted Norton in acquiring two fluoropolymer processing companies in Brazil - Brasiflon (DuPont) and Incoflon (privately owned). They were then merged into one, Incoflon. Using many of the processing technologies of Chemplast, they became a leading processor of fluoropolymers in Brazil.
In November of 1981, I received a call from Don Melville, then in London. He knew of a fluoropolymer processor in West Germany available for acquisition. He wanted to buy it, but would not unless Norton could acquire 100% of Chemplast. Norton wanted a worldwide fluoropolymer business with Chemplast as the nucleus.
Formation of Norton-Chemplast
The principals of Chemplast considered the proposal and agreed to be acquired 100% by Norton. Norton was the right kind of company, ethical, high standards, etc., and so on February 1, 1982, Chemplast became a wholly owned subsidiary of the Norton Company. Norton then proceeded with the purchase of Pampus just outside of Dusseldorf in West Germany. This gave Don what he was looking for - an international position in fluoropolymers: Brazil, West Germany, and the United States.
A short time later, the Norton Performance Plastics Group was formed, whose products included: sealants, with plants in Granville, NJ; TygonŽ, in Akron, OH; and fluoropolymers in the locations just mentioned.
Norton continued to put much emphasis on fluoropolymers as high performance plastics and continued to look for new ways to grow in this industry, internally as well as externally.
For example, there was an acquisition of the Halogen Corporation concluded in August of 1986. It was a relatively small company, but with good potential for future growth. They were specialists in high production, precision automatic molding of TeflonŽ parts - an area in which neither Pampus nor Chemplast was particularly strong.
As Norton management expected, there was a lot of synergism among the various companies and operations making up Performance Plastics. Examples:
- The Granville plant applied pressure-sensitive adhesives to Teflon® film and UHMW film from Chemplast; and on fluoropolymer coated glass cloth from Pampus, giving Performance Plastics a new line of proprietary products.
- Granville also produced laminates of Teflon® film to various substrates, producing them much more economically than Chemplast could.
- Pampus assisted Chemplast in the design of better tooling for paste extrusion; we assisted them in ram extrusion; they also provided us with a patented bearing material, Metalloplast, for markets in the US, etc.
- Incoflon in Brazil benefited from Pampus and Chemplast; and more recently, Halogen. In many areas of products and processes such as automatic molding, ram extrusion, paste extrusion, machining, etc., all companies benefited.
Norton Acquired by Saint-Gobain
Norton Performance Plastics continued to grow year by year with increases in sales, products, and personnel. In 1990, Norton, with its divisions and subsidiaries, was acquired by Saint-Gobain, a French corporation headquartered in Paris. Saint-Gobain is a multi-billion dollar international material company with ownership in a variety of operations worldwide. Its products were industrial for the most part, including building materials, flat glass, glass containers, PVC products, cast iron pipe, etc. With Norton's acquisition, their products were extended to include ceramics, abrasives, and plastics.
More recently, and to show their ongoing interest and belief in the future of high performance plastics - Saint-Gobain acquired Furon Corporation in 1999, a company composed of a variety of earlier acquired companies, many of which were oriented toward fluoropolymers. Furon had acquired these companies in a package from the Bundy Company, who had earlier acquired them over a period of years. They included companies who were some of the earliest processors in the fluoropolymers industry: Dixon Corporation, Bunnell Plastics, Connecticut Hard Rubber (CHR), and Penntube Plastics Company.
Saint-Gobain Acquires Chemfab
In 2000, Saint-Gobain made still another coup in the fluoropolymer industry when it acquired Chemfab Corporation, headquarted in Merrimack, NH. Chemfab possessed a wide range of important and innovative technologies related to fluoropolymers. They are the leaders in fluoropolymer coated-glass cloth and fabricated products therefrom; also they are the world leader in cast PTFE films, and laminates based on those films.
Today, Saint-Gobain is unquestionably the world leader in fluoropolymer processing - not only the original PTFE, but in all the fluoropolymer meltables that have followed.
Tracing acquisition steps back through the years, could it be possible that Saint-Gobain's present eminent position in fluoropolymers actually began in 1954, when a company named Chemplast was founded in Clifton, NJ in a $10/month attic with $3,000 in savings.