Hercules has weathered many transformations

Published 11:39 am Sunday, February 21, 2010

COURTLAND—Operations began at the Hercules, Inc. chemical plant outside of Franklin began in 1956, with the opening of the crude tall oil distillation unit.

“It was a 10-year joint venture with Hercules and several local paper companies, including Union Camp Corp.,” said Andy Chapman, the plant manager for Ashland Hercules Water Technologies, which operates on the site today. He described tall oil, which is used to make adhesives, rubbers and inks, as “what is left over once you extract the pulp out of pine trees.”

In the years that followed, the plant expanded and three more operating areas were built on the site.

Recent years have brought many changes and some uncertainty at the plant, but now, with the backing of three global companies—Eastman Chemical Co., Ashland Chemical Co. and Arkema, Inc.—the future looks bright, according to Chapman.

The changes began in 2001, when Hercules, Inc. ran into financial trouble and began selling off parts of the plant.

“We used to all be Hercules, and now we have three companies out here. We have Eastman, we have Arkema and we have Ashland,” Chapman said.

The company’s tall oil distillation and Pamolyn divisions were sold to Eastman and the Vul-Cup division was sold to GEO Specialty Chemicals. GEO then sold the Vul-Cup division to Arkema last year. In 2008, the Aquapel division was sold to Ashland, and operates under the name Ashland Hercules Water Technologies.

Pamolyn fatty acids are used to make coatings, chemical intermediates, cosmetics and metalworking and building & construction materials. Vul-Cup is an organic peroxide vulcanizing agent for elastomers and plastics.

The plant, located just off of General Thomas Highway near the Nottoway River, is a union facility and currently employs 69 people, 48 percent work for Ashland, 23 percent for Eastman and 29 percent for Arkema.

Despite the fact that three different companies operate on the 98-acre site, Chapman said it still operates much like it did before the sales.

“We basically run the plant pretty much the same as we did when Hercules owned everything, except instead of working for three different businesses in Hercules, we are working for Ashland and we also provide services for Eastman and Arkema,” he said.

After buying the tall oil facility, Eastman spent millions of dollars to expand it, however, the facility was sold and shuttered in 2008. Chapman said the tall oil facility was the largest operation at the plant at the time, and its closure cut the workforce by 29 percent.

In the 1950s, tall oil was a low-cost alternative to gum rosin, however, it is now considered a high-cost alternative.

“Competition for tall oil is very steep, and Eastman was not in a good position compared to MeadWestvaco, their main competitor,” Chapman said. “So we did have four plants here, now we have three—one owned by each company,”

In 1966, Hercules, Inc. began production on Aquapel, a paper-sizing agent that makes paper suitable for writing or printing. It allows paper to stay white for a long period of time, unlike older acid-based paper sizing that turned paper brown with age.

“That’s our main product for Ashland and we are the largest Aquapel plant in the world,” Chapman said.

Chapman said that the plant is “very team-based.” In fact, a team of hourly and salaried employees makes hiring decisions.

“We try to push decision making down to the lowest level possible, where people can make their own decisions,” he said. He also said that safety and environmental protection are paramount concerns at the plant, which operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“Safety and protecting the environment are our No. 1 priorities at Ashland,” Chapman said. “We take it very seriously.” Safety and environmental teams help ensure that everyone is safe.

Chapman said he is “extremely proud” of the plant employees for working through the changes over the years—including layoffs, contract negotiations and the economic recession.

“Currently, we’re in a much better position…our Aquapel plant is sold out—we can barely make enough for our customers. Arkema’s business is, I would say, stable and Pamolyn’s business has been improving to the point that they’re going back to a 7-day schedule,” he said.

However, Chapman said the plant has been able to avoid any additional job cuts since the 2008 layoffs.

“We haven’t had any layoffs during this recession,” he said. However, he also doesn’t foresee any major expansions that will add jobs either.

“We may do an expansion in Aquapel, but it would be an equipment expansion and would not add any more people,” Chapman said. However, he said there might be some hiring because of retirements in the near future.

Chapman said the plant and its employees have weather the changes and challenges well.

“I feel very good about where we are for the future,” he said.