Croda building on heritage to stay at cutting edge of industry

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LORENZO Odone’s fighting spirit lives on in East Yorkshire. Millions of people who have never set foot inside a natural chemical plant will have heard of Croda International because of Lorenzo’s Oil.

Today, Croda is building on its rich heritage by creating jobs and developing the cosmetics of the future.

Croda is investing £11m to build a new manufacturing plant to make acrylic polymers, a development which will be of interest to everyone who uses skin creams and household cleaning products.

But to gain an insight into Croda’s commitment to innovation, we should consider its greatest claim to fame.

It’s a story that might bring back memories of a trip to the cinema 20 years ago.

Michaela Odone and her husband Augusto made headlines around the world when they defied enormous odds to find a way of alleviating the symptoms of the rare genetic disorder adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD), which struck their six-year-old son Lorenzo in 1984.

The story of the Odones, two lay people who took on the medical establishment, inspired a film, which starred Susan Sarandon and Nick Nolte. Lorenzo’s Oil was one of the biggest cinematic hits of 1992.

It told how the American couple refused to accept that Lorenzo had only two years to live. They tried to find a treatment that would increase the length and quality of his life.

To help them, Croda devised Lorenzo’s Oil, a specially refined blend of olive oil and rapeseed oil.

Although there’s no cure for ALD, research suggests that Lorenzo’s Oil may delay or reduce the symptoms.

The oil is most beneficial if it’s used before symptoms develop.

In 1989, the Odones established The Myelin Project, which brought together scientists and families affected by diseases like ALD and multiple sclerosis. Lorenzo died aged 30 in May 2008.

The powerful emotional pull of the story behind Lorenzo’s Oil shows how natural chemical companies like Croda can have a profound affect on our lives.

The company, which is based in Snaith, East Yorkshire, was founded in Rawcliffe Bridge in 1925 by Mr Crowe and Mr Dawe to make lanolin from wool grease, a natural byproduct of the wool industry. More than 80 years on, virtually every cosmetic and toiletry company in the world uses Croda’s products. During the Second World War, Croda did its bit for the Allies by collaborating with the Government to produce chemicals such as camouflage creams, insect repellent and gun cleaning oils.

During the 1950s, Croda established a sales and marketing operation in the United States. As a result, many cosmetic companies used Croda’s products in their formulations. Croda entered a vast new market.

In 1964 Croda became a public company and made a string of acquisitions.

In 2006, Croda acquired Uniqema from ICI to cement its place as a global leader in natural chemicals.

Mike Humphrey has transformed Croda into one of Yorkshire’s biggest listed companies, with a market value of around £2.41bn, having worked his way up to become chief executive in 1999.

Under his leadership, the company has become a truly global player. Just five per cent of its sales are in the UK.

When Mr Humphrey announced his retirement earlier this year, the company’s shares fell two per cent, a testament to the City’s high regard for him.

Today Croda’s site at Rawcliffe Bridge is undergoing a quiet revolution.

Mark Robinson, the operations director for Croda, said: “The site has been completely redeveloped over the last 20 years with more than £100m invested to make it a state of the art facility and one of the biggest among Croda’s global sites.

“Manufacturing capability has grown significantly into many different chemistries and cutting edge technologies. This has enabled thousands of niche products to be produced.”

Croda’s customers operate in markets that sell everyday goods such as toothpaste, skin creams and home cleaning fluid.

The Rawcliffe site, which operates round the clock, employs 195 people.

Croda is developing an acrylic polymer plant there, which will create between 10 and 20 jobs in operations, sales, marketing and technical functions.

Liam Smith, the business development director at Croda Consumer Care Europe, said: “The technology is based on the formation of polymers from building blocks of acrylic acid and other related monomers.

“Typical examples of formulations that rely upon the use of acrylic polymers in personal care applications include skin creams and shampoos.

“In homecare, they are used in surface cleaners and fabric conditioners.”

Acrylic polymers can also protect crops from pests.

Mr Smith said yesterday: “The versatility of acrylic polymers means that they can be designed to provide developers in these industries with products that manage how their formulations behave inside the packaging.”

This “performance control” mechanism enables shampoo or shower gel particles to be suspended inside a bottle, until they are needed.

In other cases, Croda’s technology can be used to ensure cleaning products don’t run down a window pane.

“This is known as rheology control, or modification, and acrylic polymers are widely used as rheology modifiers in many applications,’’ said Mr Smith.

This all makes sound business sense. Between 2005 and 2010, 33 per cent of product launches by Croda’s top 10 customers in the personal care market contained an acrylic polymer technology.

Consumers are feeling jittery at a time of rising unemployment and tensions in the eurozone. But Steve Foots, who will succeed Mr Humphrey as Croda’s CEO in January, believes fortune favours the smart and the brave.

According to Mr Foots, Croda’s focus on fast growing markets, means it can look to 2012 with optimism.

He added: “We have a relentless focus on developing niche markets with patented technologies. Acrylic polymers is a new technology for Croda and we see many exciting opportunities.”

• CRODA enters a new era next month, when Mike Humphrey, the company’s long-standing chief executive, retires.

Mr Humphrey, who started out at the East Yorkshire natural chemicals company as a “management trainee dropout” 42 years ago, will be replaced by Steve Foots, president of Croda Europe.

Mr Humphrey will stay on as a senior adviser.

Mr Foots has been with the company for more than 20 years, and Mr Humphrey said he was the outstanding candidate from its extensive internal and external search.

Mr Humphrey plans to see his family more and travel when he hands over to Mr Foots on January 1.

Mr Humphrey’s tenure at Croda is a welcome reminder why companies should invest in home-grown talent.

Mr Humphrey told the Yorkshire Post: “Croda has had very few chief executives since it became a public company. We’ve consistently tried to promote from within because we have good people.”