By Chris Sweeney, Crain News Service
CLEVELAND (Nov. 12, 2013) — Last year at the Rubber Division exhibition in Cleveland, Rhein Chemie Rheinau G.m.b.H. said it wanted to increase its presence on the bladder market.
The leadership in North and South America may have changed, but the goal remains the same.
Christopher Mitchell — who took over as president and general manager of the Lanxess A.G. subsidiary's North and South American operations in September — said his initial focus will continue to be to upgrade the former Tire Curing Bladder L.L.C. facility in Little Rock, Ark., that it acquired in March 2012.
"We have a lot of work to do.," Mr. Mitchell said.
"We acquired a plant that needs attention. The previous owners simply did not have the resources to invest in the plant. When we took it over we knew we had some challenges there."
Achieving the goal, Mr. Mitchell said, combined with bladder operations located in Argentina and Brazil, promises to put Rhein Chemie in a position to become the largest supplier of tire curing bladders. Over the last year the company has invested in new equipment and process upgrades.
Rhein Chemie had to replace or repair the roof of the 200,000-sq.-ft. Little Rock facility, which spans 40 acres and produces approximately 400,000 bladders annually. The German-owned company installed eight presses and started new safety initiatives.
"There's been a lot done over the last year and a half, but we still have a lot to do," Mr. Mitchell said of the plant that just went 100 days without a recordable accident.
"Quality and safety are issues that are very important to us, and we want to get that accomplished down there," he added.
Since acquiring the Little Rock operation and making the bladder industry a focus for Rhein Chemie, Mr. Mitchell said the company has experienced about a 10-15 percent growth in actual bladder sales, even at Little Rock.
However, the goal of the company is to produce bladders in each region of the world. Rhein Chemie still imports a number of bladders to supply the U.S. The company would like Little Rock eventually to be able to produce enough to supply the U.S. region.
The company opened its first plant in Russia earlier this summer, in Lipetsk, where it makes polymer-bound rubber additives for the automotive and tire industries. Rhein Chemie said it will add a production facility at the site for bladders to serve the Russian and Commonwealth of Independent States markets. Mr. Mitchell didn't elaborate on the timetable for completion, but the company initially said it is targeting 2016.
He said the company's focus on growing in the bladder industry won't detract from its core business: supplying rubber additives to the automotive and tire industry.
"Our standard rubber additives business is solid in terms of market share and performance financially and we want to continue to maintain that," Mr. Mitchell said.
"But for growth in the next two to five years we think there is a huge opportunity with our tire curing bladders."
Wealth of experience
Mr. Mitchell brings 40 years of industry experience in management roles, his most recent as group manager for the rubber additives NAFTA business of Rhein Chemie Corp. He joined the company in 2005 as a technical sales representative.
He left the rubber industry in early 2000 and worked with a United Way program called Transitions through the Urban League. The program was designed to find jobs for non-violent, non-sexual felony offenders.
"It was the hardest thing I've ever sold," Mr. Mitchell said.
"It was much harder than selling rubber additives because you're asking people to make a lifestyle change. Some are ready to do that; others aren't," the executive said.
Lanxess recently announced restructuring plans to reduce costs and jobs by 2015. The company aims to save $135.3 million in annual savings by cutting 1,000 jobs worldwide and pursuing "strategic options" for some of its non-core business units.
Included in that list are the firm's rubber chemicals' accelerators and antioxidants lines, nitrile-butadiene rubber businesses and Perlon Monofil poly-mid and polyester monofilament products. The units combine for approximately $674.1 million in sales and 1,000 employees.
Mr. Mitchell did not seem to think the parent company's plans would detract from Rhein Chemie's goals.
"At this point it is too early to tell," Mr. Mitchell said. "Those plans are not solidified, and really right now I'm not in a position to comment on them any further than that," he said.
This report appeared in Rubber & Plastics News, an Akron-based sister publication of Tire Business.