07 April 2008 00:00 [Source: ICB]
When I started writing for European Chemical News, I knew nothing about chemicals. I had started writing about the oil industry and was still a member of the French diplomatic press, as I am now.
Indeed, I had always been bottom of my class in chemicals, and still only know the basics, which I picked up by writing about all the companies involved. I also had much help from the trade group Union des Industries Chimiques.
They were more than willing to tell me all as I became quite prominent. This happened, because being ignorant and always nonplussed, I was prone to ask the most embar-rassing questions without meaning to.
"Come on, Doris," other journalists around me would urge, "bring out one of your humdingers!" Such naive questions served me well and I progressed "on the job," so to speak.
This doesn't mean that I know much about chemicals even after all these years. But economics is the name of the game and I was even capable, at times, of writing on complex subjects involving technology if they were explained to me in words of two syllables, my motto being "if I understand, my readers will understand."
As I look back on over 20 years of writing about France's chemical industry for ECN and its successor, ICIS Chemical Business, I see a constantly changing bumpy landscape as companies merged, separated, disappeared, reappeared in a different guise, grew into large groups or dwindled into nothingness.
This is especially true of the larger, one could say historic, companies. One chameleon is Arkema, which goes way back to CdF Chimie (Charbonnages de France Chimie), a coal-based state-owned company that switched to naphtha and never made any profits until Serge Tchuruk, formerly from Rhone-Poulenc, took it in hand in the 1980s. He focused on diapers and other less noble - but profitable - businesses, until CdF Chimie was split up and shared out between Elf and Total.
The break was traumatic for a management that was beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel. I remember Jean-Paul Vettier crying on my shoulder, but finally recovering to the point of becoming Total's vice president, refining and marketing, and rejoicing when Total, taking over Fina, made a comeback into petrochemicals at the turn of last century.
Doris Leblond has retired from chemical journalism. She reported for ICIS Chemical Business and predecessor European Chemical News since the 1980s.
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