CLOVER CHEMICALS LTD REPORT BACK: HOW THE SOAP FACTORY CLEANS UP.. PROFESSIONAL CHEMICAL MANUFACTURING
Our area has been a source of chemicals since the Romans mined salt in the Dee estuary to help pay their troops (hence, “salary”). We seem more tolerant than many areas of having chemical factories on our doorstep; producing essential materials in quantity has been a positive experience in this neighbourhood. It wouldn’t happen in Surrey.
Back in 1990 Des Eustace and James Tobias, two local chemists decided to set up business for themselves, cooking and labelling eight different products in their kitchen; thus Clover Chemicals in Whaley Bridge was born. Now the firm produces some 400 lines from ink-stain remover to a product for removing chewing gum. Both men retired recently, selling up to the Belgian giant Christeyns, joining their stable of factories in Warrington and Bradford.
Then the Toddbrook dam crisis broke and everyone had to be evacuated. But life returned to normal barely a week later. Perhaps that was a good preparation, when in January a new virus caused a mass lockdown in Wuhan, China; one of the company’s chemists remarked that their new surface cleaner Ultra AX was effective against envelope viruses. A single tank of 200 litres was manufactured. And they haven’t sat down, or slept much, since.
Lesley Broderick is Business Development Manager. She joined six years ago, after more than 15 years in the sector, specialising in cleaners for catering. She explained that you can’t go to Clover and expect to find a shop selling to the public. Instead they manufacture large batches in concentrated form and ship as bulk pallets to wholesalers and distributors; it’s the latter who send off to end users to dilute, bottle, label and apply.
End users generally prefer a one-stop shop where they can buy buckets, mops and other paraphernalia. Typically a 5 litre concentrate shipped from the factory will make 166 trigger bottles at the correct dilution; controls are very strict, and training is given on safe and effective methods of using and storing their products (high alcohol products are a fire hazard, and insurers have to be informed). Clover have their own lab and research department, their own inhouse printer for product labels of which some are colour-coded. It’s not viable for a business like Clover to deliver a couple of litres to a school, and they don’t. It became clear as she described their operation that this is a slick, professional and high quality operation with a well-established reputation, and gradually we could see why.
Before 2018 the turnover was under £9m, this has grown due to the Coronavirus pandemic with currently 72% of their output goes under their own brand name, the rest is own label or private brands, with big customers in facilities management in the south of England. The aim is to match quality offered by names such as Fairy, Proctor & Gamble etc. There’s a small but growing export market with Ireland as the main destination but also some in eastern Europe. That raised the question of what to do after Brexit, but it did not seem to be a problem: “We will carry on as now, adopting EU controls.” That’s because those rules are global, designed to assist both customers and regulators in the safe, ethical and effective use of biocides. There is simply no argument here.
It’s a highly regulated industry, as you would expect. “The Environment Agency visit us a lot,” said Lesley; a company like this takes it in their stride. They’re subject to COSHH (Control of Substances Hazardous to Health) and BPR (Biocidal Product Regulations) and a host of other technical acronyms. They work closely with the Health & Safety Executive; Clover can’t do the risk assessment as that must be done in situ, where the chemicals are in use. However the company does monitor the claims distributors are making: “no poetic licence!” It is not allowed, for example, to say that “Ultra AX kills Covid-19” as this has not yet been tested or proven, but to say it’s “effective against this class of organism” is OK. Nor will they sell products which might be misused, so no chemicals for fogging machines, which operatives or other present might breathe in.
Lesley said that this year the pressure has been on but Clover has stayed loyal to its distributor base with “safe, ethical relationships built up over more than a quarter century.” Ultimately, Clover’s reputation depends not only on what goes on in Whaley Bridge, but on a network of others adhering scrupulously to a shedload of necessary rules.
And the future? Christeyns, who were originally laundry specialists, is also family owned with a similar attitude, a 350m euro business operating in 25 countries. The future with a big owner with deep pockets looks bright; Clover is expecting to double turnover within the next three years, exporting to existing Christeyns’ markets in France and elsewhere. They’re producing an eco-range, they shun plastic beads, but plastic containers are essential in this industry. But as management look to curb costs, the range is being slimmed down. Every single biocidal product will have to be registered and tested, and that’s expensive, even if it has the same chemical composition but a different perfume. So they’ll move to fewer perfumes, for example. In the UK where the biggest competitors are American, growth beckons with the NHS, with care homes, schools and universities, locations where far great attention has been paid to hygiene this year than ever in history.
It’s been a weird year. Ultra AX turned out to have star quality, and Christeyns has the first kite-marked hand sanitiser. For several weeks the high-quality alcohol required was simply unobtainable; Clover refused to compromise so for some time concentrated on churning out just 25 lines. In October a new 20,000 litre tank was installed, and investment is coming for new filling lines. Everyone now has a branded uniform, helping to keep staff feeling valued at work. “Some have been coming in at 5am and leaving at 6pm,” said Lesley. “How do we feel? Proud, but very tired!”
Covid has changed the world, not all of it for the better. But increased hygiene is surely here to stay. That means, for the chemicals factory in Whaley Bridge, the future is rosy.