Hercules Inc. History

Hercules Plaza
1313 North Market Street
Wilmington, Delaware 19894-0001

Telephone: (302) 594-5000
Fax: (302) 594-5400

Public Company
Incorporated: 1912 as Hercules Powder Company
Employees: 5,116
Sales: $1.85 billion (2003)
Stock Exchanges: New York
Ticker Symbol: HPC
NAIC: 325520 Adhesive Manufacturing; 325510 Paint and Coating Manufacturing; 325998 All Other Miscellaneous Chemical Product and Preparation Manufacturing

Company Perspectives:

At Hercules, we strive to increase our competitive advantage through work process redesign; understand and meet our customer requirements; create more efficient and cost effective business processes throughout the Company; utilize and develop the skills and energy of all employees to achieve continuous improvement; reinforce our Company-wide applications knowledge and strength to add value through innovation to our customer's products and operations; focus on our business, manufacturing, application, and technology strengths in several key markets including pulp and paper, coatings and adhesives, food, pharmaceuticals and personal care, construction and hygiene; and strengthen the growth and profitability of our businesses through product and service extensions combined with small bolt-on acquisitions that fit closely with our product and market positions and make excellent short and long term financial sense.

Key Dates:

Hercules Power Company is formed as a result of a court-ordered breakup of Du Pont.
The company signs a contract to supply the Britain with acetone.
The manufacture of cotton cellulose begins.
Hercules diversifies into rocket fuels and propulsion systems.
The company changes its name to Hercules Inc.
Hercules acquires full ownership of the Aqualon Group.
BetzDearborn Inc. is acquired.
CP Kelco is formed.
International Specialty Products Inc. wages an unsuccessful proxy fight.
Hercules' stake in CP Kelco is sold.

Company History:

Hercules Inc. manufactures specialty chemicals and materials used in the pulp and paper, food, pharmaceuticals, personal care, paints and adhesives, and construction materials industries. The company has four main divisions. Aqualon is a leading provider of products that are used to change the physical properties of water-based systems. FiberVisions holds a leading industry position as a producer of thermal bond polypropylene staple fiber and various textile fibers. Hercules' Pinova division is the only pale wood rosin derivatives producer in the world. Its Pulp and Paper unit supplies the industry with performance, process, and water treatment solutions. Challenges in the late 1990s and early 2000s forced Hercules to restructure and sell off various assets. The company successfully fought off a proxy fight waged by International Specialty Products Inc. in 2003.

Early History

The Hercules Powder Company was one of the several small explosives companies acquired by the Du Pont Company in the 1880s. By the beginning of the 20th century, Du Pont had absorbed so many of its competitors that it was producing two-thirds of the dynamite and gunpowder sold in the United States. In 1912, a federal court, citing the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, ordered Du Pont broken up. It was through this court-ordered action that the Hercules Powder Company was reborn, a manufacturer of explosives ostensibly separate from Du Pont.

The division of the Du Pont Company into Du Pont, Atlas Powder Company, and Hercules Powder Company was intended to foster competition in the explosives industry, but in reality the antitrust agreement allowed the connection between Hercules and the parent company to remain intact. The new company was staffed by executives who had been transplanted from the Du Pont headquarters across the street into the main offices of Hercules in Wilmington, Delaware. As Fortune magazine remarked in 1935, "The Hercules headquarters is in Wilmington and breathes heavily Dupontizied air." Not only did the Du Pont family retain a substantial financial interest in Hercules, but as late as 1970 the president of Hercules was related to the Du Pont family.

The Hercules Powder Company was set up as a fully developed business entity, complete with several explosives factories, a healthy segment of the explosives market, and a $5 million "loan" in its treasury. It operated successfully and made a profit from its very first year. Given its early advantage, it is not surprising that Hercules developed into one of the larger chemical companies in the United States.

Hercules began as an explosives company serving the mining industry, gun owners, and the military. In the first month of operation, its facility in Hazardville, New Jersey, exploded. Hercules had plants up and down the East Coast, however, and the loss of the Hazardville plant was not financially disastrous. Like other manufacturers of explosives, Hercules preferred many small plants to a few large ones. Due to the company's risks involved in product transportation, these plants were located in proximity to customers, rather than near the source of raw materials.

The company's first big break came in 1916 when Hercules signed a lucrative contract to supply Britain with acetone, a contract that stipulated, however, that no known sources of acetone be used. Hercules sent ships out to the Pacific to harvest giant kelp, which was used to produce the solvent Britain needed. That same year, Hercules paid large dividends on its stock shares. The company also benefited from its sale of gunpowder to the army.

In 1920, Hercules began to manufacture cotton cellulose from the lint left over from cotton seeds once the high-quality cotton has been extracted. Cotton cellulose is a fiber that has hundreds of industrial uses. When treated with nitroglycerine it becomes nitrocellulose, important in the production of lacquers and plastics. Hercules quickly became the world's leading maker of cotton cellulose. This early effort at diversification in no way threatened Du Pont, which also manufactured nitrocellulose but only for its own uses.

Expansion into Naval Stores in the 1920s-30s

Throughout its history, Hercules proved successful at transforming a previously worthless substance into something useful. However, for every time Hercules succeeded in this kind of endeavor, there were prior failures. The company's foray into naval stores is an example of this. Naval stores is a term that refers to products derived from tree sap and recalls the early use of pitch to caulk boats. Gums, turpentine, and various adhesives are all referred to as naval stores. In 1920, a Senate committee predicted that the virgin pine forests from which high-quality naval stores were derived would soon be exhausted and that there would be no naval stores industry left in the United States. The management at Hercules saw, or thought it saw, a chance to corner the naval stores market.

Hercules joined forces with Yaryan, one of the few companies that distilled rosin from tree stumps rather than pitch. After buying rights to pull stumps and building a new rosin distilling plant, Hercules quickly became the world's largest producer of naval stores. However, a problem soon arose: the expected shortage of naval stores never materialized. Hercules, the Senate Committee, and the naval stores industry overlooked the fact that pine trees grow back rather quickly and that with proper management there would be plenty of pitch. Hercules was stuck with fields full of stumps, facilities to process the stumps, and a large amount of inferior turpentine. Turpentine derived from stumps is dark in color and hence unsuitable for some uses in finishing and painting furniture.

Endowed with sufficient capital (a legacy from Du Pont), Hercules was able to salvage its naval stores division by developing a paler turpentine and convincing its customers that wood (as opposed to pitch) naval stores were a bargain. In 1935, naval stores, the second largest of the company's investments, provided the smallest percentage of company sales. Naval stores and products derived from them eventually became a mainstay of the company, albeit one with slow growth. Not until the mid-1970s did the naval stores division emerge as a profitable endeavor. It was its explosives division which ensured the company's financial stability throughout the Depression.

By 1935, Hercules had five divisions: explosives, naval stores, nitrocellulose, chemical cotton, and paper products. Chemical cotton is made from the short fibers of cotton unsuitable for weaving which are then pressed into sheets and sold to industries as a source of cellulose. The paper products division began in 1931 with the purchase of Paper Makers Chemical Corporation, which provided 70 percent of U.S. demand for the rosin "sizing" used to stiffen paper.

At the time of America's entrance into World War II, Hercules was the country's largest producer of naval stores and the third-largest producer of explosives. Business was good during the war, and company coffers were stuffed with both legitimate and illicit gains. Hercules, Atlas, and Du Pont were convicted of a joint price-fixing scheme, and Du Pont was assessed a $40,000 dollar fine. Hercules' annual reports during this period concentrated on plans for reducing the company's staff once the war ended because the demands of the war had swelled the company's workforce to twice its previous size.

Postwar Diversification

Three years after the war ended, Hercules emerged from what a later industry analyst called "a big sleep." The demand for nitrocellulose, paper chemicals, and naval stores, products Hercules was depending on in peacetime, was growing at a snail's pace. Sales were averaging an unremarkable $200 million a year. However, in the 1950s the company entered two markets it would later dominate: DMT and polypropylene.

Consistent with its "waste not, want not" approach to new chemicals, Hercules began to use waste gases from refineries to manufacture polypropylene, an increasingly important type of plastic. Polypropylene was used for food packaging, among other things. DMT is the chemical base for polyester fiber and was sold as a commodity to both chemical and polyester makers, including Du Pont. Besides these new products Hercules continued to look for new uses for naval stores from which it already derived chemicals used in insecticides, textiles, paints, and rubber.

Between 1955 and 1963, Hercules saw its sales double, due in large part to government contracts. In 1959, Hercules diversified into rocket fuels and propulsion systems for the Polaris, Minuteman, and Honest John missiles. Sales of aerospace equipment and fuels accounted for almost 10 percent of sales in 1961, 15 percent in 1962, and 25 percent in 1963. Throughout the Vietnam War, Hercules continued to derive approximately 25 percent of its profits from rocket fuels, anti-personnel weapons, and specialty chemicals such as Agent Orange and napalm.

The man who presided over Hercules in the 1960s was George Thouron, a relative of the Du Ponts. He described Hercules' policy towards expansion as "sticking close to profit-producing fields." A profile in Fortune magazine described Thouron as a quiet man. As the article noted, "his main interest is in his prize Guernsey cattle."

Thouron knew that the war in Vietnam would not last forever and undertook an ambitious reorientation of the company toward the production of plastics, polyester, and other petrochemicals. A contemporary observer remarked that "few companies have expanded further or faster than Hercules Inc." Herculon, the company's synthetic fabric, had garnered almost 11 percent of the market for upholstery material. A water soluble gum called CMC also made money for the company. CMC was as versatile as Herculon was stain-resistant: it made its way into products as diverse as ice cream, embalming fluid, diet products, and vaginal jelly. "From womb to tomb," one company pundit quipped. In 1968, the company changed its name from Hercules Powder Company to Hercules Inc.

The 1960s and early 1970s were an auspicious time for Hercules. Although the foray into plastics had required large capital and research expenditures that depressed earnings, Hercules remained a profitable and steadily growing company. High inflation actually helped the synthetics industry since the prices of natural fibers outpaced the cost of synthetics.

Overcoming Challenges in the 1970s

In 1973, however, Hercules learned that oil can be economically as volatile as nitroglycerin. The Arab oil embargo was a disaster for the petrochemical industry, and if the embargo were not enough, two years later the demand for naval stores crashed just months after a rosin shortage had been predicted. Hercules, anticipating a shortage, had ordered millions of pounds of rosin at twice the usual price. Around the time that the first rosin-laden ships arrived it became clear that Hercules' customers, also fearful of a shortage, were overstocked with the material. The rosin problem, combined with a drop in the fibers market, caused sales to drop 90 percent. Hercules stock went down 17 percent. The year 1975 was not a good one for most chemical companies, but the difficulties that Hercules experienced were more than its share.

Werner Brown was the company's president during these years. In 1977, he was promoted and chose Alexander Giacco to be the next president. Hercules had become an inordinately large company; its overheads and the size of its workforce were both excessive. In his first year as president, Giacco fired or forced into retirement 700 middle managers and three executive vice-presidents. Giacco had a managerial style that differed from that of the mild-mannered Brown, and his restructuring of the company reflected that. Giacco streamlined Hercules to make it more of a monarchy. "He runs the company like an extension of himself," said one analyst. In order to stay in touch with the various divisions, Giacco invested in advanced communications equipment and computers. He also reduced the managerial levels between himself and the foremen from 12 to six. His position in the company is suggested by his description of a new product. "I heard Gene Shalit say that candy wrapping paper made too much crinkling noise in movie houses. So we developed a candy wrapper that has no crinkle."

In many ways, Giacco's plan for Hercules resembled the strategy his mentor, Werner Brown, mapped out in the early 1970s: shift from commodity to value-added (specialty) chemicals, get rid of unprofitable divisions, and derive more profits from existing product lines. Giacco also led the company away from its longstanding tradition of basic chemical research into more immediately profitable, application-based inquiry. After the fiasco in 1975, when two unrelated markets crashed at the same time, Hercules has experimented with the proper combination of products taking to heart the teachings of economist Charles Reeder: "There's a simple two word answer to why chemical company earnings vary all over the lot. The words are 'product mix.'"

This product mix had eluded Hercules. One thing was certain, however: Hercules' mix would not include petrochemicals. In 1975, 43 percent of its fixable assets were in petrochemicals, but within a decade these assets were liquidated. Naval stores, responsible in 1985 for a decline in operating profits, also fell out of favor. Demand for CMC, the binding agent, declined because the oil industry was not using it for drilling. Propylene fibers and film, food flavors and fragrances (relatively new ventures), paper chemicals, aerospace, and graphite fibers were included in the future recipe for success. The company's plants for manufacturing DMT and explosives were among two dozen sold between 1975 and 1985.

One shining success during this period was the growth of the stagnant polypropylene market. Hercules entered into a joint venture with the Italian firm Montedison, with whom it had previously teamed up in the pharmaceutical company Adria Labs, in order to take advantage of Montedison's newly developed, extremely efficient process for manufacturing polypropylene. Because the material cost so little, Giacco promoted the use of it to replace other materials in all types of products, including cigarette filters. It was mixed with polyethylene to produce a synthetic wood pulp replacement.

The company's herbicide business, maintained during the 1960s, was not profitable and its liabilities continued to haunt Hercules well after it closed the Reasor-Hill plant in Jacksonville, Arkansas. After five years of class action litigation on behalf of U.S. veterans exposed to Agent Orange, the company paid $18 million in 1983 to settle claims in the case. Its product's extremely low levels of the impurity dioxin, which was perceived to be the primary pathogen in Agent Orange, mitigated the portion Hercules paid of the total $180 million settlement with several other manufacturers.

The overall success in its aerospace business segued nicely with its line of graphite composites, which had steadily gained acceptance during the 1970s to become a mainstay in high performance aircraft. In 1986, Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager flew the company's Magnamite carbon composites into the history book when their experimental craft the Voyager circled the globe.

Management Changes in the Late 1980s-90s

David Hollingsworth succeeded Giacco as chairman and CEO in 1987. After Hollingsworth sold the company's share of the HIMONT polypropylene venture to Montedison, Giacco resigned from the board, offended at the loss of a sure growth center. As in the last period after the top office changed hands, several poorly performing, mature businesses were sold off. Advanced materials and flavors and food ingredients--particularly natural additives based on pectin and carrageenan--were the focus of intended growth. In 1989, the company bought out Henkel KgaA's share of the Aqualon Group, formed in 1986 to make cellulose derivatives and water-soluble polymers.

The 1990s were another period of readjustment. Hercules impressed investors with its 1991 introduction of Slendid, a fat substitute made from citrus pectin (it would first be used in a commercial product five years later, in J.R. Simplot frozen French fries). However, its aerospace unit, which surged forward in the late 1970s, suffered serious setbacks in its program to develop engines for the Titan IV program. Overall, the year was a disappointing start for a new CEO, Tom Gossage. He would devote the next five years to enhancing the company's value to shareholders and succeeded in building Hercules' market value to nearly three times what it was when his tenure began (from $1.6 billion to $4.4 billion).

In 1996, another CEO, R. Keith Elliott, took the reins at Hercules. The company's successful composites business was sold to Hexcel Corporation that year. A new, lower cost carrageenan plant was being built in the Philippines. Hercules entered a joint venture of its polypropylene fiber business with Jacob Holm & Sons A/S (Denmark) in 1997. Earlier it had signed agreements to co-produce hydrogenated hydrocarbon resins in China with the Beijing Yanshan Petrochemical Company. One of the smaller CMC subsidiaries, Aqualon do Brasil, was sold to Grupo Gusmao dos Santos. In 1997, Hercules and its partner Mallinckrodt Inc. sold their Tastemaker venture to Roche for $1.1 billion.

Obstacles in the Late 1990s and Beyond

The late 1990s and early 2000s were tumultuous times for Hercules. The company made several moves that proved to be problematic. In 1998, the company acquired BetzDearborn Inc. for $2.4 billion and the assumption of $700 million in debt. The deal was designed to bolster Hercules' paper chemicals business and give it a foothold in the water and industrial process treatment industry. Benefits of the merger failed to reach fruition and company debt continued to grow. As such, Hercules decided to sell the water treatment portion of BetzDearborn to GE Specialty Materials for $1.8 billion in 2001. It also sold the majority of its resin assets that year.

In another move to reduce debt, the company joined with Monsanto Company to create CP Kelco, a venture that combined both Hercules' and Monsanto's food gums business. Problems arose, however, when CP Kelco filed $430 million suit against Pharmacia, the former parent company of Monsanto, claiming its food gum business was undervalued at the time of its formation in 2000. Hercules decided to sell its 28.6 percent stake in CP Kelco in 2004.

Management changes also continued during this time period. Elliott was replaced by COO Vincent Corbo in 1999. Corbo resigned in 2000, and the company tapped former CEO Gossage to lead the company. William Joyce was named CEO the following year. Joyce's short career with Hercules was marred by a vicious proxy fight waged by International Specialty Products Inc. (ISP) and its chairman Samuel J. Heyman. ISP held a 10 percent stake in Hercules and fought to gain control of the company's board of directors in 2003. Heyman was publicly critical of Joyce and the company's decision to sell BetzDearborn, claiming Joyce had not acted in the company's best interest. Despite ISP's efforts, Hercules managed to maintain control of its board and remained intact. Heyman resigned from the board and ISP eventually sold most of its shares.

In late 2003, Joyce left Hercules to head up Nalco Company. John K. Wulff was named chairman while Craig A. Rogerson assumed the role as president and CEO. The past several years had been challenging, but Hercules now operated as a slimmer, more efficient company and earned a profit in 2003--a good sign that business was back on track. Nevertheless, the company and its peers in the chemical industry faced several obstacles. Wavering demand and high energy and raw material costs would no doubt keep Hercules on its toes in the years to come.

Principal Divisions: Pulp & Paper; Aqualon; FiberVisions; Pinova.

Principal Competitors: Akzo Nobel N.V.; The Dow Chemical Company; Rhodia.

Further Reading:

  • Brown, Werner C., and Alexander F. Goacco, Hercules Incorporated: A Study in Creative Chemistry, New York: Newcomen Society in North America, 1977.
  • "Building Successful Global Partnerships," Journal of Business Strategy, September-October 1988, pp. 12-15.
  • "Career Journal: Who's News," Wall Street Journal, October 7, 2003, p. B10.
  • Chang, Joseph, "Battle for Hercules Heats up as Critical Annual Meeting Looms," Chemical Market Reporter, July 14, 2003, p. 1.
  • ------, "Hercules Victorious in Proxy Fight," Chemical Market Reporter, August 4, 2003, p. 2.
  • Corbo, Vincent J., "Five Great Myths about Hercules," Merrill Lynch Chemical Conference, March 12, 1997.
  • Dyer, Davis, and David B. Sicilia, Labors of a Modern Hercules: The Evolution of a Chemical Company, Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1990.
  • "Hercules Inc. Signals Proxy Fight May Lead to End of Sale of Itself," Wall Street Journal, April 13, 2001, p. B2.
  • Plishner, Emily S., and William Freedman, "The Labors of Hercules," Chemical Week, August 23, 1995, pp. 29-31.
  • Rotman, David, "Hercules Looks to Regain R&D Strength," Chemical Week, May 1, 1996, pp. 56-57.
  • Walsh, Kerri, "Hercules to Sell BetzDearborn," Chemical Week, May 23, 2001, p. 17.
  • ------, "J. M. Huber Buys CP Kelco Stake From Hercules," Chemical Week, February 4, 2004, p. 25.
  • Wood, Andrew, and Jarret Adams, "Hercules Buys BetzDearborn for $3.1 Billion," Chemical Week, August 5, 1998, p. 7.

Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 66. St. James Press, 2004.