DuPont factory: 50 years in the making
It’s an industrial success built through loyal staff and family values. Clare Weir talks to the key players as DuPont marks a golden milestone in Londonderry
Names like Harland and Wolff and Shorts are synonymous with industry in Belfast. But in Northern Ireland’s second city it is the DuPont factory which has been employing families for generations, even while other companies have come and gone.
This year DuPont, which employs nearly 200 people at Maydown outside Londonderry, celebrates its 50th anniversary.
Founded in America in 1802 by a French family, DuPont operates in 90 countries across the world and serves markets including agriculture, nutrition, electronics,safety and protection and construction.
Over the years, DuPont has brought the world famous household names as Lycra, Nylon, Kevlar, Teflon and Neoprene.
A spin-off company based at the Maydown site, Invista, now produces Lycra while the DuPont factory itself is a work leader in the production of Kevlar.
Professor Peter McKie, a former plant manager, began his working life as a DuPont employee before going on to be a consultant. He is now chair of the Health and Safety Executive Northern Ireland.
He has been associated with DuPont from the beginnings of the company in Northern Ireland.
Professor McKie joined the staff of DuPont on April 12 1959 — his first job was to step onto a plane to the US to learn about the manufacture of Neoprene, the product which was to start the machines rolling at the plant at Maydown.
He was a chemistry graduate of Queen’s and one of a group of around 20 chemists and chemical engineers who joined DuPont when it opened in Derry.
That group spent just under 12 months at two DuPont factories in the US. Maydown was to be DuPont’s European site for the manufacture of Neoprene , for making conveyor belts, window seals, tyres, paints and high-insulation foams.
After the US sojourn, Prof McKee returned with his colleagues and worked on the supervision of the construction of the Maydown plant.
The building process started in 1957 with DuPont’s own construction force, with almost 2,000 people working on the building.
Once the building was completed Prof McKie’s group got to work on setting up the Neoprene production process. “No one understood the challenges,” he said. “Chemical engineers were few and far |between in Derry so we had to take young farmers and train them to be chemical engineers.”
That intensive training was a part of the DuPont ethos and still is. “The company selected good people and gave them lots of training,” he said.
Looking back over 50 years, Prof McKie remembers how exciting the whole world of chemistry was, but he said he remembers the people more than the job itself.
“We were an average team of jokers,” said Prof McKie.
“There were lots of ex-military people, who had been stationed locally and had married Derry girls, working with us. In fact, one shift was staffed entirely by former sub-mariners. “
Those memories are tinged with sadness, though, as his mentor and father figure, Jeff Agate, was killed by the IRA in Derry.
Mr Agate, who was 58 and managing director of the firm, was shot dead outside his home in the city in February 1977.
In 1979 Prof McKie was again sent to the US, this time as manager in an Orlon plant in Waynesboro, Virginia. Orlon was a new DuPont product and within a couple of years an Orlon plant was built at Maydown and Prof McKie returned to it as manager. By that time Lycra had also been added to Maydown’s products.
But it wasn’t long before he was off on his travels again, to Stockholm as Scandinavia managing director of a team of about 500 staff and then on to Geneva, the European headquarters, where he was one of a small group of production managers overseeing the output all of DuPont’s European factories.
But all roads pointed home to Derry and Prof McKie was soon back again at Maydown as UK managing director and Maydown plant manager, at the time when a new Kevlar plant was being built.
The product, which had been invented and developed by DuPont, is five times stronger than steel.
As plant manager, Prof McKie decided to introduce new ways of working to the plant.
“Our people were encouraged to use their skills. There was no demarcation. Everyone worked hard and supported each other.
Despite ‘retiring’ Professor McKie has never lost touch with DuPont, neither from a business |aspect or socially. He has done consultancy work for the company over the years and still has contacts with the company in his role as chairman of the HSENI .
Tom Bollaert has been manager of DuPont plant in Maydown since August 2007.
“I have been with DuPont for 16 years, I have a background of operations management in my home country of Belgium and I came to Northern Ireland three and a half years ago.
“We continue to do well despite the recession and in fact it had good points for us in that we focus on training and we prepare for all eventualities, so when it did hit, we were |prepared. Despite the downturn we are still experiencing record productivity and yield.
“In terms of the amount of raw materials we can transfer into products, three years ago we were looking at a figure of 88%, now we are looking at 92%, significant growth and productivity.
“At Maydown, the operating system is unique and people have been used to working together in a system that allows everyone to participate and the technical expertise at the plant is world renowned. “We currently employ 180 people. This is a multi-generation workplace and we now see the third generation coming through the ranks, there is a family atmosphere and staff are very loyal.
“Kevlar is now the main product we produce and is what we refer to as a “hero brand”.
“It is used in airplanes to make them stronger and lighter, it is used in a similar way for cars, it improves performance — it can even be seen in recent blockbuster films like Batman and the A-Team.
“Maydown is one of only three Kevlar plants in the world and we serve the European market - which continues to grow and remain positive despite the downturn.
“I am proud to be associated with a company which has such a pedigree and heritage as DuPont, it is great to have a link to brands that are now famous the world over — Nylon, Teflon, Kevlar.
“Factories have come and gone, some big names have disappeared, there have been some turbulent times, socially and financially, in Northern Ireland but DuPont is still standing strong and I am pleased to be a part of that.”
Bertie Faulkner is former financial and support services manager.
“I was with DuPont for almost 30 years and initially joined theas an employee relations supervisor
“Truthfully, as a company, they were and still are light years ahead in terms of management and in employee relations.
“Even years ago, the terms and conditions were outstanding — they were amongst the best in the marketplace. Twenty-five years ago, the whole team concept was key, and the company had a very open and transparent focus in engaging with employees.
“The place was neutral and everybody had respect for each other, we came through difficult times. There was the Claudy bomb, Bloody Sunday, the Ulster Worker’s Strike, almost every family and relative suffered — but the company never lost a day’s production, even coming through all those Troubles and none of those awful events interfered with relations on site.
“Even when Mr Agate was murdered, his death was devastating but it prompted one of the most spontaneous and heartfelt protests at Guildhall Square, attracting people from all communities.
“I think that the company always appreciated quality of workforce. The plant at Maydown has been seen as one of the most progressive, we brought in a unique work system which was held up as a model in all of Europe, in terms of letting every single worker have an input in how things were done.
“DuPont is a large international company — they could have pulled out at any time, or worse, have been scared to come here at all.
“But any companies considering inward investment, when any Government funding became available, everyone’s first port of call was to DuPont in Maydown, it was invaluable in terms of selling Northern Ireland as a place to invest.
“Every visitor, senior people from the company, potential investors from the USA and Europe, could see the quality of the product and the quality of the workforce.