There's no way we can compete with the Far East with our plant, some of it 30 years old, and their labour costs.' That was the unanimous view of chemical managers at Wilton, Teesside - until their polyester manufacturing site left the shelter of a large multinational for the bracing environment of a smaller firm. Proving again that there are no mature industries, only mature managers, they were galvanised into improvement, increasing performance efficiency by a third - not only equalling Far East rivals but opening up markets that no-one imagined existed.
DuPont bought the Wilton site's two PTA (pure terephthalic acid) plants from ICI in 1998, bringing heavy emphasis on safety, but leaving the economic model otherwise unchanged: their mission was to combat falling prices with minimum investment and constant economies in production. But much of that cost related to reliability. So running down the plant and cost-cutting were actually making matters worse by increasing unreliability.
As a result, in 2000 OEE (overall equipment effectiveness) was a very ordinary 70%. Wilton, sums up site manager Kevin Feeney, contained 30% 'hidden plant' - capacity paid for but not used. How could investment in new plant be justified in those circumstances?