Issue Date: April 7, 2008
Rhodia's sulfuric acid regeneration business accounted for just 4% of its 2007 sales of nearly $7 billion but a whopping 12% of its operating profit of $613 million. That reason alone is enough for the French firm to keep the business in its portfolio.
The regeneration of sulfuric acid used in oil refineries to improve gasoline octane ratings is not a high growth business, acknowledges James Harton, president of the business known as Rhodia Eco Services. In fact, Rhodia sold its European sulfuric acid regeneration business in 2005, leaving Eco Services as the only Rhodia division with a client base solely in North America.
Although Rhodia expects its other businesses such as nylon, surfactants, and silica to grow, it views sulfuric acid as a steadily profitable business. U.S. oil refiners, Rhodia's major customers, are not expected to increase demand for sulfuric acid significantly. However, Harton asserts, "we have done a good job in reliably serving our customers, and we expect to grow consistent with their growth and with gross domestic product."
Moreover, with its 50% market share, Eco Services is significantly bigger than acid regeneration competitors such as DuPont, General Chemical Performance Products, and Marsulex. That satisfies an important criterion that Rhodia's chief executive officer, Jean-Pierre Clamadieu, has set for businesses to remain in the firm's portfolio: being a leader in the market it serves.
Thomas Gilbert, a Zurich-based chemical analyst at the investment bank UBS, says the acid regeneration operation is a good business that has long-term refinery contracts. Because it depends on contracts instead of merchants sales, he considers it stable and profitable.
The U.S. sulfuric acid business has been part of Rhodia's portfolio since its predecessor firm, Rhône-Poulenc, acquired Stauffer Chemical in 1987. Paul Bacon, Eco Services' business director, explains that Stauffer built its acid recycling business during World War II, when sulfuric acid was in great demand for turning out the high-octane aviation fuel required for the war effort.
Stauffer built acid regeneration plants adjacent or close to refineries in Texas, Louisiana, California, and Indiana. Today, Eco Services operates six plants regenerating 3 million metric tons of sulfuric acid a year, Bacon says. The company uses pipelines, barges, rail, and trucks to get spent acid from refiners. It regenerates the acid and returns 99.5% pure product to them.
Success in the regeneration business doesn't depend on research but rather on process improvements and customer service. "We adjust our regeneration rates according to our customers' needs," Bacon explains. For instance, Eco Services uses remote electronic sensors to monitor sulfuric acid tanks at customer sites. When needed, it picks up spent acid and replenishes stores of fresh acid. "Our refinery customers concentrate on refining gasoline, and we deliver accordingly," Bacon says.
But as large a player as Rhodia is in the acid regeneration market, the acid it regenerates accounts for just 10% of the North American sulfuric acid market. "We're a large part of a small segment," Bacon says. Whether it's recycled or made new by burning elemental sulfur, sulfuric acid is used to refine metal ores, manufacture fertilizer, and in various chemical synthesis processes. It is used, for instance, to make the nylon 6 intermediate caprolactam.
Because of the costs involved in shipping sulfuric acid, Eco Services will remain a North American regional business. "Geographically, there's only so far we can go to maintain a reliable recycling chain going," Harton says.
Although Eco Services is a legacy business, it's one that Rhodia considers a keeper, Harton maintains. A small part of the overall sulfuric acid sector, it can claim leadership in the regeneration market and has the profits to prove it.
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