VICTREX HONING PEEK MARKETING STRATEGY

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WEST CHESTER, PA. — Polyetheretherketone supplier Victrex USA Inc. is taking a page out of Intel Corp.'s marketing handbook.

Like Intel, which convinced computer makers to label products ``Pentium Inside,'' Victrex USA wants plastic molders to label products with its PEEK trademark.

With a new production line started in early December, and with successful applications spurring new applications, Victrex USA is looking forward to a year of solid growth in 1997, with sales increasing 10-20 percent.

Victrex USA, based in West Chester, is the sole maker of PEEK resins. At $33-$35 per pound, PEEK resins are among the most expensive—and highest performance—engineering thermoplastics made commercially.

Victrex expects to build its core business in industrial, electrical and automotive markets, and for new applications to provide growth this year, David Hummel and Dan Lazas said in a recent interview at their office. Hummel is managing director; Lazas is commercial director.

Victrex USA is the North American—and largest—division of Victrex plc of Thornton, England. Victrex plc was part of ICI plc of London until management purchased the business in 1993.

ICI founded the business in 1981, and put it up for sale in 1991 in a corporate restructuring. Until the management buyout, the business languished, Hummel said.

During the period when the business had a ``For Sale'' sign on the door, the company had a tough time marketing PEEK, which had a reputation as an extremely expensive, high-performance thermoplastic developed and used primarily for military applications.

However, the company has overcome those snags and is moving on, Lazas said.

``For the applications we target, our typical development time is three to five years,'' he said.

``We adopted a marketing strategy similar to Intel's of sub-branding our product, to show the end users — all the way down the product chain — the value of our products,'' said Andrew Walker, Victrex international commercial marketing manager.

As with Intel Corp.'s computer chip, whose sales are marked by computers bearing the label ``Pentium Inside,'' Victrex strives to have its products labeled with its PEEK trademark.

``In the early 1980s, we helped processors to develop applications for PEEK, and we abdicated our authority.

``Now we control our own destiny: We target our product at the end users, and we focus our product development on their product and the specific properties PEEK contributes to their performance,'' Walker said.

That marketing strategy has given the company significant applications in the following areas:

Automotive, where PEEK is used for metal replacement in high-heat/high-wear power train components.

Industrial, where PEEK is used in compressors, pumps and valves. Hummel said Victrex is hoping to make new inroads in petrochemical processing applications.

Electrical, where PEEK is gaining rapidly in uses for silicon wafer carriers and silicon chip trays. Hummel said Victrex also is hoping to gain new markets in flat panels/liquid-crystal-display panels, and in hard disk drives for laptops and other applications.

Medical, especially where products will require sterilization and for products in noninvasive surgical procedures. For the latter, Lazas said PEEK can be extruded into thin-walled tubes that resist kinking while having a high degree of elongation.

Beyond those markets, Hummel and Lazas said they are looking at applications for dental devices and for such exotic items as protective sleeves for slot machines, tire spikes for winter driving, filters for automatic coffee makers and, as fibers, strings for tennis rackets.

The new production line in Thornton increases Victrex's production capacity by 50 percent, to 3.3 million pounds a year.

While Hummel and Lazas acknowledged that the added production represents some overcapacity for PEEK, they added that the increased production also represents their company's commitment to its markets.

Victrex's only manufacturing facility is in Thornton, but 90 percent of the company's sales are outside of the United Kingdom. Half of Victrex's $50 million in annual sales comes from the United States, while 35 percent comes from Europe — mostly Germany. The remainder is from countries in Asia and the Pacific Rim, especially Japan, Walker said.