Market flexibility key to DuPont’s 80-year run

Jesse Puga monitors the computer screens in the lab in the DuPont facility on Thursday. DuPont turns 80 years old in September this year. Photo by Chuck Vandenberg/PCC.

BY CHUCK VANDENBERG

PCC EDITOR

FORT MADISON – Being able to adjust to changing markets and the constant acquisition environment in a global world has kept Fort Madison’s DuPont facility viable for the past 80 years.

DuPont is celebrating its 80th birthday this year and you can probably decorate that cake with candles representing different products, divisions, lines and other changes in their product sales line, including a new one this fall when DuPont joins with Dow Chemicals. The two companies have announced a merger that Plant Manager John Hellige said will likely impact the local facility in the third or fourth quarter this year.

“That’s all public now,” he said Thursday afternoon. “I’m not sure it will have that big of an impact on our staffing out of the gate, but it’s very exciting news.”

An article in Reuters in late January said the merger would take place later in the year, but a recent article found in the Houston Business Journal indicated the close of the deal could happen as early as the second quarter. Hellige said the last he heard would be the third or fourth quarter.

The facility started as a tire manufacturer called Perfection, which history indicates made tires for larger automotive manufacturers like Ford, and possibly made tires for the military in World War II.

“On the water tower, which is the high rise part, there’s concrete wheels on all four sides and what that represents is Perfection which built the facility pre 1917s,” Hellige said.  “We’re not even sure that they did make tires, but that’s the history, there have been photos of workers moving tires around here, but nothing is certain.”

At the time there was a large blackpowder plant in Keokuk, the largest blackpowder plant in the world. I think what happened is that the Fort Madison Chamber worked with DuPont and the company purchased the facility from the city and began retrofitting the sight. In 1937 they began producing thinners.

Hellige said the DuPont story is one of evolutions.

“Throughout the years we’ve taken plans through infancy and maturity and decline. We continue to retrofit the site and utilize our assets, our equipment and our knowledge through our employees to keep staying viable,” he said.

Since that time in 1937, Hellige said the company has gone through product lines such as paint thinners, automotive resins,  automotive paint, and then into residential house paint, and the early 1990s is when we started to get into ink.

The evolution continues today as the facility is involved in solar energy by creating tevlar polyvinyl film for the solar panel backsheets. The facility also creates inks for the artistry and textile industries and then some specialty dispersions called Nomex that is used in fabrics for firefighters and police uniforms.

The main process in the facility is known as dispersion.

Hellige said that’s a process of taking raw material and a liquid and grinding it and making it into a homogenous liquid,” Hellige said. “Ninety percent of our business is digital printer ink. We take a pigment and liquid and grind it. We add water and get the product to the right specification. The really growing part of our business is textile and artistry ink. Fabrics such as t-shirts, that’s a big end user of that, and then draperies and upholstery.

Hellige started as a non-exempt employee at Pinnacle and then moved into supervisory roles before moving into management and then being hired by DuPont.

He said even his family has roots in DuPont including his father-in-law, who also worked at DuPont.

“That’s one of the main things here is it’s so generational,” Hellige said. “Being a proud member of the Fort Madison community. In the past 80 years, we’ve become deep-rooted in the community. Most people in this area either know someone who worked here or have family that worked here. It’s really one of the greatest things about working here.”

At times, before heavy automation, the plant had an employee base of anywhere from 200 to 300 employees. Hellige said currently the facility runs with about 72 employees and said they are pretty steady with that number.

“These employees aren’t your typical factory workers,” Hellige said. “They function more like chemists than your typical factory labor force. It’s pretty specialized.”

Hellige said the company also prides itself on a safe working environment indicating it’s been 1,300 days since the last injury.

“We’re working on 3.5 years without an accident. “Really that’s the number one thing we do above everything else, making sure we take care of our employees. That’s absolutely number 1.”

Community involvement has also been a part of the company’s 80 years in Fort Madison.

“We support the community in different ways. We’ve donated the walking trail and that’s been good. We have our native prairie lands and we’ve been acknowledged by several groups for sustaining that. We also have numerous species of Iowa hardwood trees leading up the road to the plant. That area used to just be hayed. We have more than 100 acres of land on the site and we always look to see how we can be beneficial to the environment with that space,” he said.

After Axalta spun off in Feb. 2013, Hellige said people kind of forgot that DuPont was out here.

“We’re alive and well in the community,” he said. “I guess that’s the real message, that I still hear people say they didn’t know DuPont was here. But we are here and we’re still vital.”

Joe Clark mans the tanks on the production floor at DuPont on Thursday afternoon. Photo by Chuck Vandenberg/PCC.

 

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