AkzoNobel, the global paints and coatings company and producer of speciality chemicals, is looking forward to rapid growth in China, writes Emma Davies

AkzoNobel, the global paints and coatings company and producer of speciality chemicals, is looking forward to rapid growth in China, writes Emma Davies

For decades most homes in the UK have had more than a splash of Dulux paint on their walls. Now Chinese home owners are becoming increasingly familiar with the paints, with 1000 new Dulux franchisee stores opening in China in 2010 alone. The brand is owned by Dutch company AkzoNobel, which describes itself as ’the largest global paints and coatings company and a major supplier of specialty chemicals’. AkzoNobel bought ICI - which brought the Dulux name - in 2008. 

AkzoNobel has set its sights on rapid growth in China, with a goal to double revenue generated there to €3 billion (£2.6 billion) by 2015. The company already has 27 manufacturing sites in China and makes most of its revenue there from ’local demand’. In November 2010 AkzoNobel opened a €275 million speciality chemicals site in Ningbo. 

India is another important growth area for AkzoNobel, as is South America. In Brazil, the company is building a new facility to supply, store and handle all of the chemicals for the world’s largest pulp mill in Tres Lagoas City. There, AkzoNobel’s pulp and paper chemicals business, Eka, is trialling the ’chemical island’ concept, which is similar to BASF’s well-publicised ’verbund’ integrated approach, where the site is self-sufficient in terms of chemicals. 

AkzoNobel has about 3700 staff working in its research, development, and innovation (RD&I) function. The innovation part is about ’the critical activities involved in converting R&D into new products and processes and launching them into the marketplace,’ says Dale Laidler, RD&I communications leader at AkzoNobel.

Just over 10 per cent of RD&I staff are based in the UK, while 20 per cent are in the Asia Pacific region and 39 per cent are in ’mature Europe’. AkzoNobel is divided into three business areas: decorative paints, performance coatings, and speciality chemicals - all of which have a research base centred largely on the chemical and materials sciences. 

’Most of the researchers perform R&D for a particular business unit, but we also have shared research in the form of expert capability groups (ECGs), says Laidler. ’These are researchers who have expertise in areas such as material science, colloid science, materials synthesis, measurement science, process technology, and polymer chemistry, which are of common interest across the businesses.’ The ECGs are co-located with business R&D groups in global R&D centres at five locations: Deventer in the Netherlands; Felling and Slough in the UK; Songjiang near to Shanghai in China; and Strongsville in Ohio, US. Besides these global laboratories, the company has a further 150 labs worldwide performing research and development for the businesses.

Almost all of AkzoNobel’s staff working in China are Chinese and the company is very keen to recruit researchers with western work experience. ’As well as recruiting in leading universities in China, we have employed Chinese postdocs and postgraduate students who have worked on company projects in our labs and universities in the UK,’ says Laidler. A number of post-doctoral researchers that the company sponsored in the UK five or six years ago are now working in China, he says. 

AkzoNobel has also recruited staff who came to the UK with Dorothy Hodgkin Postgraduate Awards (DHPA), a scheme set up in 2003 to bring ’outstanding students’ from a number of countries including China to study for PhDs in the UK.

The scheme is part-funded by companies including AkzoNobel , which has funded Chinese graduates to work on company research projects. Juan Zhou, a DHPA postgraduate student based at Bristol University, was recently recruited by AkzoNobel to work at its Songjiang site. Before heading back to China in a few years time, Zhou will gain valuable experience in the company’s R&D labs in Slough. ’Coming to Britain to study for my PhD at Bristol University has been a fantastic experience for me,’ says Zhou, ’I found the industrial orientation of my work and collaboration with AkzoNobel was very valuable in making my mind up about going into industry. Working for the company in Slough before I return to China will help me a lot with my career.’

Emma Davies is a science writer based in Bishop’s Stortford, UK 

Facts and figures

Employees   Approximately 57 000 

Locations Headquarters in Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Products Paints, coatings and speciality chemicals 

Revenue €14.6bn in 2010, up 12 per cent compared with 2009

History  Formed when Dutch Akzo merged with Swedish Nobel in 1994. In 1998 AkzoNobel bought UK company Courtaulds, known for high-tech industrial coatings and manmade fibres and home to International Paints. In 2008, Akzo bought ICI.