After four decades in the resin business, Jeff Taylor has called it a career.
June 30 was Taylor's last day as senior vice president of polyethylene for Houston-based Westlake Chemical Corp. He had been with Westlake since 2002.
President and CEO Albert Chao credited Taylor with helping “to shape and build Westlake Chemical into the enterprise that we know today.”
Industry veteran Mike Mattina will assume Taylor's role at Westlake. Mattina previously served as vice president and general manager of the company's North American Pipe Corp. and North American specialty products units.
Before heading off into the sunset, Taylor took some time to talk with Plastics News about his career and the industry which he saw grow and develop.
Q: What was your first job in the industry? Where and when?
Taylor: I graduated from the University of Delaware in 1975, and my first job was as a sales trainee with Air Products in what was then their PVC resin business. After a short stint training in the Philadelphia area, I was assigned a sales territory in Louisville, Ky. A semi-interesting fact is that the PVC I was selling was produced at Air Products' Calvert City, Ky. [plant], which is now owned by Westlake Chemical. I guess what goes around comes around!
In 1977, I was recruited by Gulf Oil Chemicals to sell polyethylene in their Atlanta sales territory. I moved to Houston in 1980 and spent a total of 25 years with Gulf-Chevron-Chevron Phillips in the polyethylene and polypropylene businesses before moving to Westlake in 2002.
Q: What have been some of the biggest changes you've seen during your career? Better performing materials? Industry consolidation?
Taylor: Some of the changes in the industry I have seen are in consolidation and materials. On the resin side, yes, there has been significant supplier consolidation in most resins, especially PVC, polystyrene, polypropylene and PET. But interestingly, by my count, there are still 15 North American PE suppliers and three more planning to enter the market in the next few years.
I believe this is indicative of the value that PE brings to the end use markets and the continued strong growth of what could be considered a mature product. More significantly, there has been tremendous consolidation on the processor end of the business, as the big buyers of packaging — like food companies and retailers — have driven innovation and cost improvement on a global basis. This has manifested in the need for increased investment and global capability from their key package suppliers.
As to materials, certainly there continues to be significant improvement in performance and cost as a result of process and catalyst innovations. I think about the advent of linear low density PE, bimodal high density PE, metallocene and single-site catalyst technology, and exotic ethylene copolymers like EMA, EBA, EEA, EAA and ionomers. But despite these significant developments, among others, it is somewhat surprising that some of the workhorse materials from decades ago continue to maintain big shares of the market.
The most obvious example is low density PE, which has been enjoying a resurgence of supply and demand of late, when a few years ago it was declared to be on its death bed. Sometimes, the more things change the more they remain the same.
As to the processing end for PE, advances in extrusion, laminating and printing technology were very significant, with multi-layer packages and films now being the rule rather than the exception. Who would have predicted seven- and nine-layer stretch films?
Q: What factors have allowed PE to make inroads into so many markets?
Taylor: Polyethylene has benefitted from the huge global change in the food supply chain, which is still a key growth driver in the developing world. The shift from daily food purchases at the local market to the domination of grocery and big box stores as the main retailers of food products has been enabled through packaging that has dramatically improved shelf life performance.
And of course, PE is a key material component of this packaging evolution. It is a versatile material that can be tailored to specific applications and processing conditions, it is relatively inexpensive vs. alternatives; it is “sustainable” in that it is non-toxic and recyclable.
Q: What overall impact do you think new shale-based PE capacity will have?
Taylor: The expected impact of the upcoming capacity expansion in North America has been discussed in many forums. One's opinion is dependent on your stance on several key assumptions, such as the cost differential between North America natural gas liquids and global refinery liquids. Will it be sustained in the long run, and if so, to what degree?
You also have to look at the probability of high-cost capacity shutdowns and continued expansions in other areas of the globe, such as coal-to-olefins and methanol-to-olefins expansions in China and mixed feed expansions in the Middle East. Another factor to consider is growth in PE demand globally. One or 2 percent one way or the other could make a big difference because of the size of the market. Build it and they will come?
I'll let you draw your own conclusions on these issues, but I think one certainty appears to be that North American PE demand growth will not be sufficient to absorb the new capacity, therefore North America will become a more significant exporter of resin.
Q: Any retirement plans? Consulting? Golf?
Taylor: There have been many personal interests that I have deferred as I focused on my job duties and my family priorities — yes golf, also reading, leisure travel, the usual stuff. And we are hopeful that some more grandchildren will be coming along as well.