As I pen my last business commentary before retirement, the polymer landscape looks very different from the one that presented itself when I joined Plastics & Rubber Weekly in 1981. With my first day spent covering a seven-hall Interplas, one hall dedicated solely to the Battenfeld group, the breadth and vitality of the business was clear.
Material suppliers were strongly represented with names like ICI, Shell and BP exhibiting alongside Germany's Big Three, while the show buzz was that Norway's Norsk Hydro would soon acquire BIP's PVC business.
Saudi Arabia's role was limited to forecast capacity figures, which often seemed unrealistic, while company ownership was either through shareholding, private individuals or in state hands. The perceived opportunities for venture capital to add value to investment were restricted to the activities of financiers such as Slater-Walker and hardly impinged on ownership in this industry.
The atmosphere was informal, as evidenced by PRW's style at the time, and the mood positive despite the hangover from the Mideast crisis of the late '70s.
On the equipment front, the picture was more familiar from today's viewpoint, with many of the prominent names still around even if their ownership has often changed. The emergence of stand-alone subsidiaries in the United Kingdom was well-advanced, if still short of the impressive headquarters buildings featured today.
The industry was set for a decade typified by growth, expansion, and the emergence of new names like Neste, EniChem and, of course, Sabic. PRW shared fully in this world, as players, keen to show off their products and investments, regarded the presence of PRW as essential to such events. I paid my first visit to Saudi Arabia for the Petchemplast show in 1983, for example, as the paper demonstrated its recognition of where the future might lie.
However, the second two-thirds of my time here has been against a more difficult backcloth with perennial overcapacity, the decline of the United Kingdom as a power in the plastics world as China has advanced, the rise and fall of the venture capital approach to ownership and now, the worst recession in the memory of the longest-serving veterans.
Fortunately, the ongoing environmental challenge notwithstanding, polymers retain the attractions that their unique properties impart, ensuring that they remain at the heart of new product design.
My final plea would be that original equipment manufacturers, whose products and packs depend so heavily on these merits, be less secretive about their selection. There are so many good stories out there that would enhance the industry's reputation if they could just be reported.
Whitehead is retired deputy editor of Plastics & Rubber Weekly.
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