Creating chemicals for 150 yearsBy Sarah Harding, PhD - 6th June 2019
Robinson Brothers celebrates 150 years of business this year. Sarah Harding caught up with Adrian Hanrahan, Managing Director at Robinson Brothers, to hear how the company is marking this achievement, and his plans for the future.
Founded in 1869 by three entrepreneurial siblings, Robinson Brothers is one of the UK’s largest independent manufacturers of fine and speciality chemicals. Beginning with the distillation of coal tar, the company quickly moved into the production of Tarvia (a predecessor of Tarmac road surfacing), and with this knowhow moved into chemicals for the rubber industry.
The rubber industry still represents about 20% of overall business, and Robinson Brothers is renowned worldwide for its speciality products for rubber vulcanisation, low temperature curing and ultra-accelerators. Moreover, involvement in the rubber industry led to an expertise in hydrogenation, carbon disulphide, and other chemistries, which in turn led to opportunities in other sectors, including pharmaceutical and agrochemical intermediates, athletics shoes and – more recently, through the acquisition of Endeavour Speciality Chemicals – a rapidly-growing business in flavours and fragrances.
“The company evolved by reacting to the market and diversifying where it was opportunistic to do so,” explains Adrian Hanrahan, Managing Director at Robinson Brothers. “That entrepreneurial spirit has stayed with us, and we’re seeing a lot of good traction with new products that we’ve developed.”
Hanrahan is proud of the company’s R&D efforts which continue to follow market forces and generally focus on safer alternatives for ‘difficult’ chemistries. For example, “Historically, accelerators to produce rubber or latex goods contained a lot of nitrosamines, which are carcinogenic,” explains Hanrahan. “So we developed a range of products under our Robac brand, which are used as nitrosamine-free accelerators, and they comply with European regulations for toys and children’s articles, for example.”
Robinson Brothers exports about 70% of its business, to Europe, the US and Asia-Pacific. To facilitate this, the company partners with local entities that smooth the path of international trade. This approach has driven the expansion of overseas business in recent years, with particular growth in Europe and the US.
“We have a great partner in the US for our latex and non-pharma products,” explains Hanrahan. “We have set up a partnership with Thomas Swan and they’re doing a fantastic job for us.” Meanwhile, companies in the intermediates space might be interested to note that Robinson Brothers is still seeking a US partner to help expand their pharmaceutical and agrochemical intermediates in North America.
As for Europe, “Brexit…” Hanrahan sighs. “I think we’re all fatigued, aren’t we? We’ve appointed an Only Representative in Ireland where we’ll transfer all our registrations under REACH at one minute past midnight when BREXIT happens. This will allow us to keep trading with the EU 27. We will also have to register all our products and imported materials under UK REACH, which will put us at a competitive disadvantage to our EU competitors – it will be tough but we will overcome the challenge.”
I asked Mr Hanrahan why overseas companies are so keen to work with Robinson Brothers.
“Their fantastic management team!” he exclaims.
Well yes, of course! And anything else?
“We provide a full-service,” he says. “With R&D, polymer additives and kilo laboratories, and pilot and large-scale manufacturing plants, we can offer a full package. We provide in-house hazard screening to help our contract service customers by engineering out risk, and for our own products we keep ahead of the game by looking at market forces and innovating to overcome limitations – like nitrosamines in rubber, or another example is SRM102, a new accelerator that replaces ETU for curing polychloroprene… We’ve been around for 150 years and you only survive that long by doing the right things.”
Indeed, with 150 years of history, Robinson Brothers offers a rare legacy. The company is celebrating the milestone with a number of activities across 2019.
- In April, the company held a Robac Technology Conference, where customers from 30 countries gathered to share ideas and best practices.
- In June, the company hosted a major dinner at ChemSpec Europe in Basel, Switzerland.
- In July, a new book called Robinson Brothers 150 Years in Business was published and gifted to employees, shareholders and customers.
- In September, the company is holding an open day for current and past employees and their families, and local dignitaries – around 2000 people are expected to attend.
- In November, the company is hosting a dinner at CPhI Worldwide in Frankfurt, Germany.
Yet while the company clearly values its heritage, its sights are firmly set on the future, not least through its transformation to digitization.
“We feel there’s huge potential in automation, for freeing people from manual tasks,” explains Hanrahan. “It’s early stages, but we’ve started that journey.”
The company is also investing in additional capacity, which could be seen as testament to faith in the future.
“It’s looking bright,” declares Hanrahan. “I know we have to deal with the US–China trade wars, which impact globally, and other political issues that bring volatility and uncertainty. But honestly, I’m actually very positive about the future.”
Adrian Hanrahan, Managing Director at Robinson Brothers, Phoenix Street, West Bromwich, West Midlands, B70 0AH, UK
T: +44 (0)121 553 2451