Safripol celebrates 50 years
A LOT of people, here and around the world, say a polymer plant that is 50 years or older is dated and should be replaced, but you won’t be hearing that from Safripol, one of South Africa’s leading polymer manufacturer, which celebrates the 50th anniversary of its entry to the polymer supply business this year.
“Yes, our plant is 50 years old, but I don’t think you’ll find many parts of the plant that are that old. All the main working components have been replaced, and the rest we’re keeping in good operating condition,” said Safripol CEO Nico van Niekerk recently.
The company is actually in the process of increasing output from its polymer manufacturing units, including at its PP plant in Sasolburg and PET plant in Jacobs, Durban.
Rather than relax at the helm after what has been quite a successful few years for the company, Van Niekerk and his team have been working towards further minimising the risks of plant interruptions as well as towards achieving more sustainable and inclusive outcomes in the communities where its plants are based plus in the wider public community where products made from Safripol’s Aspire™, Safron™, Safrene™ and iMpact™ materials are used.
Safripol has had to be ahead of its game in order to keep the plants running, with the supply of power being one of the biggest challenges. Current investment projects are those into a 10MW solar power plant (with 15,220 photovoltaic panels) at Sasolburg and the upgrading of the electrical infrastructure, partly to allow the feeding in of current from its solar system.
Other current projects include its transition to supply recycled grades of the materials it supplies, including the use of renewable feedstock at per Bio-PET from 2023. Safripol also plans to reduce water emissions from plant cooling operations to have net zero emissions by 2050.
With a total nameplate capacity of 520,000 tons per annum (HD 160kt, PP 120kt, PET 240kt), Safripol does not compare with some of the giant global producers, but it certainly is a leader in Southern Africa, and it sees its plant as having a high level of ‘agility’ capable of producing a broad range of products which are world competitive.
“We are continuously benchmarking against other polymer manufacturers globally, and believe we are very competitive,” added Van Niekerk.
Safripol has also taken the decision to focus on key markets and exit those where it felt it could not add real value, among these being the PP fibre and BOPP sectors, the HD injection moulding and dairy sectors, and that of PPE (personal protective equipment), all of which it has exited.
Established in ‘69
Originally established in 1969 as a 50:50 joint venture between Sentrachem and Hoechst of Germany, then the largest chemical company in the world, Safripol actually traces its origins to the date of commencement of material production, which was 1972, when it started supplying high-density polyethylene to the SA market.
Production of polypropylene at the Sasolburg plant, and supply to the market, commenced two years later in 1974.
Those early years were challenging for the business: although it had the support and active participation of its then parent, Hoechst group, polymer production skills within South Africa were in their adolescence at the time. Hoechst was the preeminent player in the global polyolefins market then: prior to the SA venture it had set up polymer production plants in India, Australia, Brazil and the USA. The creation of Safripol hence placed South Africa in elevated company, and also identified it as one of only a few polymer producers in Africa.
Hoechst and local partner Sentrachem actively set about developing individuals with the requisite polymer production expertise and skills. The company ethos was always based on strong customer focus as international experience demonstrated that customer loyalty can only be achieved through superior quality and service.
The timing of the establishment of Safripol turned out to be fortuitous: the world’s first oil crisis occurred a year later in 1973, when the Arab members of OPEC (Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries) declared an oil embargo. The result of this was spiralling fuel costs and, as a direct consequence, rapidly increasing polymer prices.
South Africa would at the time have been a distant satellite to the global oil crisis, but the challenges for the fledgling Safripol operation were sizeable, nonetheless. Capacity in the 1970s was in the order of 40 000 tons per annum of HDPE and 30-35 000 tpa of PP using Hostalen technology.
Although Safripol had an agreement with Sasol to obtain the feedstock from the latter’s petrochemical plants at Sasolburg and Secunda, any production interruptions at these plants could affect Safripol’s production – and directly impact its customers. Such a scenario did occur in 1984, when propylene supply was interrupted. The result of this was the construction by Safripol of a massive 4 000-ton storage tank for propylene at Richard’s Bay on the KZN coast, a further major investment. Quantities of propylene were also secured with the installation of a splitter at the Sapref refinery in Durban.
Safripol’s arrangement with Sasol to secure feedstock was to come under the scrutiny of the Competition Commission much later, when the merger of Sasol and AECI’s polymer businesses potentially limited the competitive environment in South Africa. In 1996/97 a further major investment was made by Safripol when a new PP plant was constructed at Sasolburg using Spheripol technology. The old PP plant was then rebuilt into the third HDPE ‘train’. At the same time, the HD plant was completely refurbished.
Capacity was increased sequentially, with the improved skills of the Safripol production team, to the point that output had reached 160 000 tpa for HDPE and 120 000 tpa of PP by the beginning of this millennia. Safripol had become a big player in the African context, the Hoechst group was transforming, and the new South Africa was attracting new investors, and so the operation attracted the interest of international group Dow Chemical Company, which in 1997 purchased Sentrachem group, and hence Sentrachem’s share of Safripol. Two years later, in 1999, Hoechst ‘unbundled’, resulting in it selling its share to Dow. Safripol hence rebranded and operated as Dow Plastics SA.
That spelt, for a time, the disappearance of the Safripol name, but it wasn’t forgotten. When Dow in 2006 made it clear that its geographical focus was changing, a local team led the charge to regain SA ownership of the business. In one of the biggest ever transactions in the SA plastics industry, the Safripol name was revived and with it, the continuation of Safripol’s legendary customer service was reassured.
Although it may have retained its original character, the business was now sans its international partners, but that allowed more flexibility in choosing the most suitable technology partners. From the beginning, Safripol formalized alliances with Dow and LyondellBasell, the largest plastic companies in the world.
Incidentally, LyondellBasell is now the holding company of all the original Hoechst and Montell technologies which were used for starting Safripol. Another LyondellBasell ex-Hoechst company, Qenos of Australia, was also added to the technology alliances as it had developed to become one of the original pioneers of high-pressure HDPE pipe materials produced in the same type of factory; Safripol’s produces the iMPACT 100 high-pressure pipe material.
KAP acquired Safripol in 2017 and the Hosaf (PET manufacturing business) and Safripol businesses were put together under the ‘new’ Safripol that was launched in 2019, marking the commencement of a new phase for the business.
The company mission, vision and values had to be built around the customer focus and the partnership and respect for the many people involved at all levels in business. Dedication and technology had to result in excelling in Safety, Health, Environmental and Quality (SHEQ) policies, practices and ratings. In fact, Safripol is one of the few companies in South Africa which has managed full years with no reportable SHEQ events at all and usually yearly ratings are well below the industry’s average.
Safripol is very aware that people are the core for excellence in performance, quality and reliability, and it is people who make business a success. It was this basic belief that motivated Safripol to participate annually in the Best Employers Awards survey, where they have always ended as a finalist and often on the podium as one of South Africa’s top employers.
Among the more recent highlights for Safripol was the introduction in 2010 of its iMPACT 100 high-pressure pipe grade material. Working in cooperation with Qenos, this new generation PE100+ pipe material was first produced in Sasolburg in October 2009 and introduced to the market the following year. The high standards for this material grade, which is tested and viewed as second to none in global standards, are due to the need for the manufactured pipe to perform for a minimum of 50 years under pressure.
Today Safripol employs approximately 450 people at the Durban and Sasolburg plants and at its head office in Bryanston. The management team consists of CEO Nico van Niekerk, Chief Operating Officer Anton Booysen, Sales & Marketing executive Mark Berry, Chief Financial Officer Willem Els, Sasolburg Operations executive Eddie Kotzee, Technology and Innovation executive Gert Claasen, Supply Chain executive Gerhard Vermeulen, Human Capital executive Kurt Shovell, Durban Operations executive Deon Koegelenberg, and ICT executive Karina Geyser.
The strategy adopted, with Safripol developing and manufacturing for direct sales to the larger converters around the country and the Plastomark group being its national ex-stock distributor, continues in operation in what remains one of the biggest success stories of the SA polymer industry to date.