NEW ORLEANS — EniChem SpA, Bayer AG and Huntsman Corp. top the list of firms interested in buying Shell Chemical Co.'s Kraton thermoplastic elastomer business, according to a Houston-based industry consultant.
``Shell's crown jewels are for sale,'' said Balaji Singh, president of Chemical Market Resources. ``The sale is tied in to [parent firm Royal Dutch/Shell's] poor results in the oil industry. It has nothing to do with the health of the styrenic block elastomer industry.''
Singh spoke at Flexpo 99, a conference hosted by CMR in New Orleans June 23-25.
Royal Dutch/Shell Group announced late last year that it would divest 40 percent of its chemical business, including Kraton; half its share in world polypropylene leader Montell NV; its PET business; and its Carilon line of aliphatic polyketones.
Styrenic block copolymers such as Kraton are the largest volume category in the TPE industry. North American SBC capacity totaled almost 580 million pounds in 1998. In North America, SBCs are most commonly used in adhesives, sealants and asphalt modification.
Houston-based Shell Chemical leads the North American SBC market with a 42 percent share, EniChem, based in Milan, Italy, ranks third at 15 percent. Shell ranks third in the European SBC market with an 18 percent share.
Singh and CMR project manager Sameer Amte estimated the value of Shell's global Kraton business at more than $1 billion, based on annual sales of $475 million and asset value of $780 million.
By acquiring Kraton, EniChem would take over the top spot in North America and add to its technology base, Singh said. Unlike Shell, EniChem currently does not produce styrene-ethylene-butadiene-styrene type SBCs, which Singh described as premium products.
Bayer, of Leverkusen, Germany, would add to its growing image as a TPE supplier by buying Kraton, according to Singh. The company already produces elastomeric products including thermoplastic polyurethanes.
And snagging Kraton would help Huntsman follow through on its stated goal of moving into specialty chemical areas, he added.
Bayer spokesman Johann Thim and Huntsman spokesman Don Olsen said their firms declined to comment on any possible interest in Kraton.
Officials at Shell and EniChem could not be reached for comment.
Shell may have more success finding a buyer if it's willing to sell its North American and European Kraton businesses separately, CMR's Amte said.
``Kraton is regionally distributed, and in this product, the dynamics of regions can be more important than for other products,'' he said.