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Global Health

How small chemical company leaders are dealing with the coronavirus

Specialty chemical CEOs are rolling with the punches to keep their firms going

by Rick Mullin , Melody M. Bomgardner
March 17, 2020 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 98, ISSUE 11

 

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Credit: Nation Ford Chemical
Nation Ford Chemical's conference room can accommodate groups of up to 20. Now it is limited to eight, 6 feet apart.

As measures to contain the coronavirus—SARS-CoV-2—sweep across the US, the heads of privately owned chemical and instrument companies find themselves in uncharted territory trying to keep their companies going and their employees safe.

C&EN reached out to CEOs of several such firms to learn what they are doing to keep business moving forward. We heard stories about setbacks, as expected supplies didn’t come through, but also small triumphs, as needed safety equipment was finally found. Overall, these leaders are keeping a close eye on supplies while planning for the real possibility that orders will drop in the coming months.

Keeping staff healthy and maintaining continuity in customer service are the top priorities at Boron Specialties. “We are a pretty small facility, seven people on-site, so as best as we can we’re isolating,” CEO and founder Beth Bosley says. “But, frankly, we are all in the lab together or maybe all in the plant together. There is not much a seven-person company can do in that respect.”

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Operations in Ambridge, Pennsylvania, are so far uninterrupted, with one dodged bullet, Bosley says. The company recently began a manufacturing campaign with a process using ammonia that requires full-face respirators. Boron learned that an amine cartridge needed for the respirators was on allocation.

“That cartridge would do nobody any good against coronavirus, but even that cartridge was in short supply,” Bosley says. “Our supplier said they have had all sorts of inquiries for all sorts of respirator cartridges. So, is it industry trying to buy ahead, or is it average people trying to get their hands on any sort of a breathing apparatus?” A long-standing customer, Boron did manage to obtain a sufficient number of cartridges, Bosley says.

The staff at Boron may expand despite pandemic restraints, Bosley adds. “We are trying to hire a new chemist at the moment and have moved all of our interviews to web-based platforms,” she says. “That’s not ideal, but it at least keeps our process moving forward.”

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Credit: Boron Specialties
Keeping appropriate distance in the lab is difficult, Boron Specialties' CEO Beth Bosley acknowledges.

Jay Dickson, CEO of Nation Ford Chemical, a manufacturer of sulfanilic acid and other chemicals in Fort Mill, South Carolina, says his primary concern is a likely downturn in major markets such as aviation, for which the company manufactures a secondary amine antioxidant used in jet lubricants.

“If the airline industry slows down, so will our sales,” Dickson says, “but the opposite is occurring right now.” Lubricant manufacturers are increasing output in case they must close their plants in the weeks ahead, he says. “So we have seen a slight uptick in additive sales, but we expect the third and fourth quarters to be miserable.”

Nation Ford is prepared for the possibility of a shutdown prompted by a mandatory quarantine period, Dickson says. “We keep a large inventory of finished goods. That’s just our business practice,” he says. “We would still be able to supply goods as long as we are allowed to ship product.”

Gene Williams, CEO of Optima Chemical, says his main concerns are maintaining reliable delivery of raw materials and managing manufacturing projects that require customers’ chemical engineers and chemists to work with Optima staff onsite at its facility in Douglas, Georgia.

“We have one campaign in production interrupted because the supplier of a critical raw material scaled back operations because of the coronavirus,” he says. The supplier, based in the Northeast, had instructed employees to stay home as a precautionary measure and informed Optima on March 12. “We are going to consume the remaining raw materials and finish up next week,” Williams says, after which the firm will shut the line for a couple of months.

Working with customers on process development is complicated by travel restrictions, Williams says. “We have projects in queue in our pilot plant for about the next 6 weeks,” he says. “But meetings on projects beyond that are being canceled.”

At Wyatt Technology, a laboratory instrument maker in Santa Barbara, California, CEO Geofrey Wyatt says his staff continues essential lab and quality-control work on the company’s machines. The firm also tests samples from potential customers to confirm that its equipment is the best fit for their needs.

But the company has sent a number of its workers home to help create some distance between them for safety. Starting Monday, March 16, about a third of the company’s employees have not been coming into the building.

“It is a somber mood,” Wyatt says. “We are still building instruments; we still have orders. But that faucet is probably being turned off for the most part as we speak.”

Wyatt sells its light-scattering detection instruments to academic and industrial labs. “So, many of our customers are at the forefront of vaccine development and response.” Though he does not know if his firm’s machines are being used specifically for work on the coronavirus, Wyatt’s customers include Gilead Sciences, Moderna, Sanofi, and GlaxoSmithKline. “All are very large, important customers of ours and some have been identified as working on coronavirus,” Wyatt says.

“We are literally and figuratively a family-owned business,” Wyatt says. “I’m really concerned if the world shuts down, laser light-scattering instruments are not going to be high on the list of must-have equipment, and capital spending is not going to be essential. Things will get interesting in the wrong sense of the word. We want to provide stability to our workforce because so much of the value of what we do comes from them. We have no idea what’s going to happen.”

Valliscor, based in Eugene, Oregon, manufactures fluorinated building blocks and other specialty chemicals. CEO and founder Rich Carter says a core tenant of his business is its strong, reliable supply chain, but that doesn’t mean he has no worries.

“We are still operational, but to be real honest we are aware things are changing on an hourly basis,” Carter says. The company has orders due out the door over the next 3–4 weeks that staff are working to ship out ahead of schedule this week. To his knowledge, Carter says, none of his suppliers have alerted the company to any issues.

“So far our workforce is hanging in there. We don’t have a bunch of people standing next to each other and we do have people working from home if they can, and doing split shifts so there’s not much overlap in office space.” Carter said he was reassured when a federal government official he reached out to with questions late at night by email got back to him quickly.

At Hampford Research, CEO Kate Donahue says customer orders have not fallen and raw material delivery is not yet impacted. “So on a fundamental level, our ability to do our business has not yet been impacted,” she says. “Our biggest concern is our workforce. How do we keep everybody safe?”

The Stratford, Connecticut-based company employs 30 in two shifts, generally 12 working in the plant and three in quality-control and research laboratories. “There is definitely a point at which we cannot run if enough people are quarantined or out sick,” Donahue says, adding that she is concerned that Connecticut does not have adequate testing capability for detecting COVID-19 infection.

Hampford, which manufactures high-purity chemicals for electronics, personal care, and dental-care markets, has updated a plan book it prepared for the swine flu pandemic in 2009, Donahue says. It addresses issues such as workplace hygiene and rules for when to halt operations and how to pay employees in the case of a work stoppage.

Our biggest concern is our workforce. How do we keep everybody safe?
Kate Donahue, CEO, Hampford Research

“We meet daily to touch base on what new news has transpired since we last met and whether it changes any of the decisions we’ve already made about how we’re going to run the company,” Donahue says. She meets with the entire company frequently, emphasizing the importance of precautionary measures.

“It’s this low level of anxiety, stress that is always there that for me personally is quite challenging,” Donahue says.

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