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Britain: Imperial Tiger

4 minute read

Homebound aboard the liner Aquitania in 1926, a group of British industrialists traveling together decided to merge four struggling chemical firms into a new company called Imperial Chemical Industries Ltd. In a surprising departure from British formality, they scribbled out the new company’s compact on a sheet of Cunard Line writing paper. Over the years since then I.C.I, has become Britain’s Du Pont.

From a fortresslike grey stone headquarters beside the Thames near Parliament, the directors of Britain’s largest nongovernment enterprise supervise an imperial giant with bases in 48 nations. Led by lean, nimble Chairman Stanley Paul Chambers, 59. they run their decentralized, globe-circling operation with the same easy writing-paper informality with which it was founded. That and a tigerlike lunge for new business last week enabled I.C.I, to announce 1962 sales that rose 5% to $1.6 billion and earnings that jumped 14% to $91.8 million.

Seriously Scratched. Few outsiders anticipated quite such a showing; just over a year ago, I.C.I, and Chairman Chambers were both in trouble. Intense competition had brought a worldwide drop in chemical prices. Britain and the Common Market could not make up their minds about each other. And, acting more tigerish than usual, I.C.I, had pawed hungrily at another company and been seriously scratched itself. To widen its synthetic fiber business. I.C.I, bought heavily into smaller Courtaulds. Ltd. and touched off the biggest proxy fight in British history (TIME, March 23. 1962). Able to secure only 38.5% of Courtaulds stock, I.C.I. not only lost the battle but was generally criticized for grasping, un-British conduct. For Chambers the outcome was an un-prestigious personal defeat.

Chambers, a financial wizard trained at the University of London’s School of Economics and polished at the Inland Revenue Board, obstinately foug1′ his way back to grace. The Courtauld venture had rewarding side effects: the worth of the Courtauld stock held by I.C.I. soared after the quarrel, from $173 million to $268 million. More important. Chambers made some hard decisions inside I.C.I. He cut its 99,000 employees by 5%, trimmed costs to the point of printing its annual report in newspapers rather than sending copies to almost 475,000 shareholders. The company also stepped up and centralized its research, which has pioneered in weed killers, growth stimulants for plants, antimalarial drugs, improved aviation gas and a cheaper method of producing ammonia.

Alkali to Zippers. I.C.I, managed to increase its sales largely by switching much of its outside marketing effort. It tripled sales in the European Common Market to $37 million, though this still amounts to only 1% of chemical sales within the EEC. To gain a larger share, I.C.I, may open plants in each Common Market country, is planning a $280 million petrochemical plant at Rotterdam that will, says one I.C.I, executive, “manufacture products that don’t yet exist invented by people who are not yet working for us.” I.C.I, also looks on Iron Curtain countries as prime customers. It now supplies them with one-quarter of the plastics imported from the West, in a decade has boosted sales to them 50 times —and intends to sell even more.

Chairman Chambers has simple tastes; he prefers gardening to golf, and used to subway to I.C.I, from London’s well-to-do Finchley suburb until work pressures made the tube impractical. But there is nothing simple about his plans for I.C.I. The company is setting up operations to buy crude oil from British companies, remove valuable petrochemicals and sell the rest as gasoline or fuel oil. It is spreading out from simply supplying plastic to molding plastic products. It now sells 12,000 different items from alkali to nylon zippers and intends to expand its finished-product lines. Such adventuresomeness seems only natural to a company whose birth certificate is a piece of steamship stationery.

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