The strong bond between General Electric Plastics and Pittsfield, Mass., could not survive forever.
It's easy to blame Saudi Basic Industries Corp. for the decision to close the Sabic Innovative Plastics headquarters and eliminate or move most of its jobs. But I doubt that Pittsfield would be safe from job cuts if General Electric Co. still owned the business.
GE isn't known for making business decisions based on sentimentality.
Plastics and Pittsfield have strong connections that go back more than 100 years. But the relationship has grown frail over time, as GE Plastics, and then Sabic IP, changed.
We've been talking to current and former employees and managers, and we've heard lots of opinions about the decision. One universal sentiment is that it's sad. People keep saying it's the end of an era. Both of those statements are true.
Many feel the move was inevitable. Maybe it was hastened by the change in ownership in 2007. Perhaps engineering resins weren't a great fit for Sabic, which was focused on commodity resins prior to the purchase. But ABS and polycarbonate were already well on the road to becoming commodities when Sabic took over the portfolio that included the golden trademarks: Lexan, Cycoloy, Cycolac, Geloy, Noryl and Ultem.
In the long-range big picture, it had to be hard to justify keeping a low-growth business with margins that are lower now than seven years ago in that part of the country.
Pittsfield is one of those cities that has a long connection to plastics, like Leominster, Mass.; Evansville, Ind., and Akron, Ohio. But you could make a better comparison to cities that had one major plastics company, like Wooster, Ohio. There will still be plastics companies in Pittsfield after Sabic IP shuts down, but it won't really be a major plastics center anymore.
The Sabic/GE legacy
So what's the legacy of the Sabic Innovative Plastics/GE Plastics business in Pittsfield?
For me, it's the people who come to mind. Big names, sure, like Jack Welch, Jeff Immelt, Larry Bossidy, Stan Gault, Glen Hiner — and, of course, Dan Fox. It's a testament to the company that so many former managers in the plastics business became members of the Plastics Hall of Fame, and also top CEOs at General Electric and other Fortune 500 companies.
But there are dozens — if not hundreds — of other people who will long be remembered; associated both with the plastics industry and Pittsfield. There still seem to be former GE Plastics people everywhere. They used to be heavily recruited by competitors, customers and any company that wanted to capture some of the GE Plastics marketing magic.
Perhaps many of the Sabic IP managers will find themselves in the same position in the next year.
So the headquarters at One Plastics Avenue will close, and no one will be surprised if the Polymer Processing Development Center in Pittsfield closes, too. The Plastics Concepts House closed years ago. Buildings come and go. Losing 300 jobs is significant, but it won't be a death blow to a city with more than 40,000 residents. Pittsfield will survive, like Wooster did after Rubbermaid left a decade ago.
It's sad that to some the company's legacy will be the PCB pollution in the Housatonic River. Pittsfield is losing hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars in economic output, but the business was underperforming — and times change.
Loepp is editor of Plastics News and author of “The Plastics Blog.” Follow him on Twitter @donloepp.