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The brilliant white story is a proud tale with many different chapters…

Much may depend on the outcome of recent US legislative intervention into a proposed take-over of Cristal, but yet another new name could adorn Stallingborough’s titanium dioxide plant in 2018. Tronox, itself a US company, is looking to take over the site from the past decade’s custodians, as another new chapter in a long, strong history draws to a close.

The brilliant white story is a proud tale with many different chapters…

Here Barry Howells, who worked there for 32 years – under three different company names – between 1967 and 1999, initially in research and latterly as human resources manager, reflects on ‘the brilliant white story’.

It is unlikely that in the ever increasingly fast world we live in many of us take the time to look closely at the surrounding environment. If we did we would notice the number of things which are white – the paints in our houses, workplaces and shops, the kitchen appliances, motor cars, UPVC doors and windows to mention just a few. 

All of these are whitened by the unique pigment called titanium dioxide which has been manufactured at the plant at Stallingborough for more than 60 years.  Since the sad demise of Tioxide in Grimsby it is almost certain that the white products around us contain titanium dioxide manufactured at Stallingborough .

Over the years the South Bank site has been a significant contributor to the local economy. At its height it employed 1,600 people, not to mention those that provided contracting services for the site and those employed by suppliers of various products. 

Despite the fact that the name has changed from Laporte to SCM Chemicals to Millennium to Lyondell and Cristal over the years, and is currently in the throes of changing again – to be an integral part of the largest manufacturer of titanium dioxide in the world – it has always held the philosophy that the plant operates by and with the permission of the local community and has, over the years, played a significant role in that community. This has been ably demonstrated by the support of local schools, colleges, charities and worthy causes. These have been admirably chronicled and supported by this august newspaper. Of the many, a list too long to mention, two are good examples. The Armed Forces Day more recently and the support of the Grimsby Judo Club and its most famous member, Sharon Rendle, who won world recognition, acclaim and an MBE for her efforts. There are many more examples.  For many years it owned and ran its own sports and social club at Love Lane Corner (now home to Cleethorpes Town FC).  The membership was free to all employees and enjoyed much success over the years, boasting one of the best football pitches and bowling greens for miles around.  This was open to the local community through their affiliated members scheme.

The site has an exceptionally high reputation for its education and training programmes. Until recent years it trained its own engineering apprentices and, more recently, supports the excellent Catch programme, close to the site in Stallingborough. It pioneered the transition of apprentices into fully qualified professional engineers being the first company to support one of its apprentices to become an accredited mechanical engineer through part-time education, and he is still employed by the company.  The current chairman of the 25 year club started as a 16-year-old apprentice and is now a fully qualified power and control engineer and he is still employed by the company. School leavers have progressed, through part time education, to become members of the Royal Institute of Chemistry and Institute of Chemical Engineers. Its youth training scheme (YTS) was a major success despite being steeped in meaningless government bureaucracy, enabling the company to train a greater number of school leavers entering the organisation.  Another first for the company was what is known as ‘work experience’.  The company had a firm and established link with Whitgift School and one of their senior teachers, Gil Clarke, had the idea and vision to request consideration for some of their students to spend time in various chosen departments to help them to decide what career they should pursue.  It is fair to say there was some reluctance on the part of the company to accommodate the idea but they did and it proved to be extremely successful and is now a common feature in all schools and is proven to be extremely useful provided it is properly delivered.

It has been said that company success, over the years, has been achieved with very little or no support from national and local politicians of all shades. Manufacturing industry in general and chemical manufacture in particular has been neglected and overlooked by all of them and we are now reaping the benefits of their lack of vision and financial support, unlike, for example, our German competitors where engineers and scientists are treated with the utmost respect and fully supported in their endeavours.  

Many believe that the real strength, like most successful companies, lies in its workforce.  Unlike modern employment trends once people were recruited to the company they tend to stay.  There are many with 25 and 40 year records with the company.  Each year the company hosts and pays for a celebratory dinner at the Humber Royal Hotel when more than 180 25-year plus employees will attend.  This year there were five new 25 year employees invited and another five 40 year employees added to the list. This celebration is unique to the area. The tales and anecdotes will be long, and exaggerated more each year. Inevitably mention will be made of the ‘Sulphate Bard’ the unknown operator on the sulphate plant who penned humorous poems about the many larger-than-life characters working on the site. Often referred to by outsiders as the ‘Stallingborough Mafia’ (without the violence!) to many it is one big family sharing all the joys and disappointments that all families encounter. A truly unique experience and feeling.   For many the success is about respect. Respect for each other whatever their job or position in the organisation, recognising that doing the particular job to the best of their ability is key to success.

The next time you remove the lid from a tin of brilliant white paint or look at most things white, spare a thought for that chemical manufacturer on the banks of the Humber and how important it is to this community.

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