ECC Group plc
ECC Group plc
John Keay House
St. Austell, Cornwall PL25 4DJ
Fax: (0726) 623019
Incorporated: 1919 as English China Clays Ltd.
Sales: £982.2 million (US$1.59 billion)
Stock Exchanges: London NASDAQ
ECC Group produces and sells industrial minerals all over the world and construction materials in the United Kingdom and the United States. It also builds houses in the United Kingdom. It is the world’s largest producer of kaolin, more familiarly known as china clay. More than half of the group’s turnover derives from its overseas operations. Group activities are carried on by its subsidiary companies organized in four divisions.
ECC International (ECCI) is concerned predominantly with the production and sale of china clay, a raw material used by a number of industries. Some 80% of china clay output is now used by the paper industry, 12% by the ceramic industry, and 8% by miscellaneous industries, mainly in the manufacture of paint, rubber, and plastics. ECCI also produces and sells calcium carbonate, as well as other industrial minerals. In 1989 the division’s sales of industrial minerals exceeded six million tons for the first time. It also has plant hire and transport operations and a small waste-disposal business. Production facilities are in the United Kingdom in Devon and Cornwall, in the United States, Brazil, and Australia. In 1989 ECCI’s sales contributed 56% of the group’s total turnover of £981.2 million.
The operations of the ECC Construction Materials (ECCCM) division include the production and sale of quarry material, macadam, concrete products, and industrial sand in the United Kingdom and the United States, and a U.K. waste-disposal business. ECCCM contributed 34% of group turnover in 1989. Two smaller divisions are responsible for ECC’s other activities; ECC Construction (ECCC), whose operations represented 4% of group turnover in 1989, is concerned with the construction, development, and refurbishment of private housing and, trading as SNW Homes and Bradley Homes, is responsible for building houses in the United Kingdom. IDF International operates worldwide, supplying drilling fluids to the oil and gas exploration industry, operations which accounted for 6% of group turnover in 1989.
Kaolin takes its name from the mountain in China from which European manufacturers of ceramics originally obtained their supplies of the raw material. The increasing demand for ceramics in Europe stimulated a search for raw materials nearer home, and by the early 18th century, china clay deposits had been located in Bohemia, Thuringia, Saxony, and near Limoges in France. In the United Kingdom china clay deposits that were found to be of a finer quality than elsewhere in Europe were discovered in Cornwall in the middle of the 18th century; their exploitation created the United Kingdom’s china clay industry. Its development in the 19th century was economically most important to Cornwall, since its growth took place at a time when the industry upon which Cornwall had previously depended for employment and wealth creation, tin mining, was being forced into decline by foreign competition. Changes in the papermaking industry and its expansion in the second half of the 19th century created a new and growing market for china clay.
The processes of extracting, refining, and drying china clay remain in essence the same as they were in the 19th century, although the application of technology has transferred to machines much of the work done by manual labor in the early days, improved the purity of the final product, and made it possible to extract other minerals that formerly went to waste. Even so, waste remains a formidable problem for the group; despite the use of sand and the application of much research, the production of one ton of clay still creates seven tons of waste. The first process is the pit operation, which involves exposing china clay deposits by removing the overburden. Some deposits may be as close to the surface as three feet while others may be hundreds of feet below ground. Hydraulic mining, by firing water jets from a cannon at the clay deposits, frees the deposits and creates a slurry which also contains sand and mica. The slurry is then pumped out and the coarser sand removed before the refining process takes place. This process takes out unwanted minerals such as quartz, mica, and feldspar. Geologically, china clay is formed in granite rocks by the decomposition of feldspar. At this stage chemical bleaching to remove the stains in the clay caused by mineral salts, particularly iron oxide, can add value to the final product, a technological advance not available until after World War II. ECCI operates six refining plants in Devon and Cornwall that take clay from a number of pits and mix it in the quantities required for finished products of varying characteristics. The final drying process, which today usually takes place in natural gas-fired driers, was originally done in coal-fired kilns and even, at some pits, wind and sun dried.
In the first half of the 19th century, production of china clay was in the hands of many small proprietors, some of whom owned the land on which the mine lay and some of whom leased it. Although some consolidation took place later in the century, in 1914 there were still some 70 individual producers. At that time the industry was characterized by low wages, overproduction, and price-cutting. These problems were exacerbated by the outbreak of World War I, particularly for an industry that depended on exporting, to the extent, in 1914, of 70% of its output. During the war, shipping capacity for goods such as china clay, which had little or no military purpose, was severely limited. By 1917 many china clay producers were making losses and few, if any, were making profits. A trade association, Associated China Clays, was established in that year, and in its seven year existence—it terminated in 1924—had some success in stabilizing the industry by setting prices and sales quotas. In 1919, the three largest producers in Cornwall, Martin Brothers Ltd., established 1837; the West of England and Great Beam Company, established 1849; and the North Cornwall China Clay Company, established 1908, merged to form English China Clays Ltd.
Reginald Martin of Martin Brothers was chairman of the new company but the most influential figure, until his early death in 1931, was T. Medland Stocker of the West of England Company. A qualified mining engineer, anxious to see technical improvements and investment in an industry whose development was inhibited by fragmentation and a lack of capital, Stocker’s company had before 1919 absorbed a number of smaller china clay companies. Stocker was very much the architect of the 1919 merger. Two more acquisitions, the Melbur China Clay Company and John Nicholls & Company, made shortly after the incorporation of English China Clays (ECC), gave English China Clays 21 pits to operate. With an annual output three times the tonnage of its nearest competitor, Lovering China Clays, ECC was the largest company in the industry. It was not, however, the only company involved in restructuring in the industry; in 1919 H.D. Pochin & Company acquired one of Cornwall’s oldest china clay companies, J. W. Higman & Company, and their combined output made Pochin the third-largest producer.
Through the 1920s ECC faced the difficulties caused by the slump that followed the immediate postwar boom. Excess capacity in the china clay industry internationally, as world demand remained below prewar levels, engendered fierce price-cutting competition which became even worse after the failure of the trade association in 1924. The success of a new association, formed in 1927, was short-lived—it lasted only until 1929—although it was reflected in ECC’s improved profits in 1929. Over the decade ECC increased its dominance of the industry by further acquisitions. Four companies were acquired in 1927, the North Goonbarrow, the Great Halviggan, the Imperial Goonbarrow, and the Rosevear, and in 1928 the Hallivet China Clay Company was purchased. There were four more smaller acquisitions in 1929, Burthy China Clays, New Halwyn China Clays, the Carbis China Clay & Brick Company, and the Trethowal China Clay Company, and, more importantly because of its consistent refusal to join any trade association, William Varcoe & Sons was acquired in two stages by ECC in 1929 and 1930.
During the depression, the china clay industry was severely affected. Production fell in the United Kingdom by 34% between 1929 and 1931, and remained below the 1929 level throughout the 1930s. Although the effect of the Great Depression was not as severe in the United Kingdom as it was in the United States, it was enough to provide a powerful stimulus to consolidation and amalgamation among the china clay producers, as in many other industries. In the interwar years rationalization, largely taken to mean the merger of small-scale manufacturing units in order to gain the benefit of economies of scale, became as widely practiced as diversification was to become in the 1950s and 1960s.
In these circumstances the merger of English China Clays with its two major, though smaller, competitors, Lovering China Clays and H. D. Pochin & Company, in 1932 was the next logical step towards rationalizing the industry. ECC became a holding company, owning 63% of its new operating subsidiary, English Clays Lovering Pochin & Company (ECLP). The remaining shares were held by members of the Pochin and Lovering families. The first chairman of ECLP was the Honorable Henry D. McLaren, who in 1935 succeeded his father as Lord Aberconway. Reginald Martin, who remained chairman of ECC until 1948, when he was over 70, was managing director of ECLP in 1932 to 1937. Martin’s assistant managing director in 1932, who was to succeed him in 1937 and to exercise a major influence over the company until 1963, was John Keay—Sir John Keay from 1950, when he was knighted. An accountant by profession, Keay had joined ECC in 1929 and was responsible, with Reginald Martin, for the success of the negotiations leading to the 1932 merger.
The integration of so many diverse companies—another 12 china clay producers were acquired during the 1930s—would not have been easy at the best of times. In the 1930s when falling demand, surplus capacity, and low prices meant there was little spare cash for investment, it was even more difficult. However, some progress was made in modernizing, mechanizing, and making the industry more efficient. The engineering facilities at the company’s 42 pits were reorganized and with the acquisition in 1935 of the Charlestown Foundry, despite its poor condition, the company had a nucleus for engineering. Electrification was extended to more of the company’s pits and processes, and in 1936 a new central power station was commissioned at Drinnick, to supply all the company’s operations. The company developed brick-making using the high-temperature-resistant substance molochite, and looked for other uses for this material. A research department was established, initially to work on fractionating clay particles to produce the more highly refined selected particle size (SPS) clay required by paper manufacturers, especially in the United States.
World War II offered ECLP little hope of improving trading conditions. With home demand expected to fall and no hope of maintaining the export trade that, through the 1930s, had taken up nearly 65% of output, a 50% reduction of capacity was enforced by the Board of Trade under its wartime powers. For ECLP, the only bright spot was the Charles-town Foundry, which was able to undertake armaments contracts and, re-equipped with machinery and tools that were to prove of immense benefit to the company in the immediate postwar years, worked to full capacity throughout the war.
When the war ended, it soon became clear that the demand for china clay would expand rapidly. Although ECLP had formulated plans for postwar development, shortages of men, building materials, and fuel precluded any immediate expansion, nor was it an easy task to reopen pits that had been closed for the duration of the war. After representations had been made to the government, a Board of Trade working committee was appointed to look for ways of increasing production. Its report, published in March 1946, recommended short-term measures to alleviate the labor, materials, and fuel problems and suggested a wider ranging enquiry. A Board of Trade committee was therefore appointed, with John Keay from ECLP as its vice chairman. Its report, delivered two years later, condemned the industry, but not ECLP, for among other things, its failure to innovate, poor research, and lack of welfare facilities for its workers. In 1950 an advisory council, on which sat representatives of all parts of the industry, was established. For ECLP, the immediate postwar years meant steady growth and recovery. One innovation for which it was responsible in those years made a major contribution to the U.K.’s postwar housing shortage. Cornish Unit houses, jointly designed and developed by ECC’s subsidiaries Selleck Nicholls and John Williams, were bungalows built from concrete using china clay sand. In the ten years immediately after the war, 40,000 were built. ECC’s building subsidiaries went on to extend the range of prefabricated building components for both housing and industrial use.
It was not until the early 1950s that restructuring and reorganization paved the way for the emergence of the ECC group as it is today. In 1951 and 1954 ECC was able to buy the shares in ECLP previously held by the Lovering and Pochin families and, with a financial reorganization in 1956, ECLP became a wholly owned subsidiary. The activities of the group’s subsidiaries were then reorganized into four trading divisions, each one covering one of ECC’s main operations: china clay, building, quarrying, and transport. The changing nature of the business since 1956 later resulted in transport being moved to the ECCI division, and the new IDF division being created.
The 1950s and 1960s saw considerable growth for ECC and real profitability. However, the company continued to be run by those who had been brought up in hard times, and in the 1960s popular opinion within the company held that ECC stood for “every copper counts.” Notwithstanding, large amounts of capital were invested in the 1950s and 1960s in modernizing all parts of the china clay production process, and as research and technological developments offered scope for further improvements, the process continued in the 1970s and 1980s. Oil-fired driers replaced the coal-fired kilns in the 1960s to be replaced, in turn, with natural gas-fired driers in the 1980s. From the 1960s onward increasing quantities of china clay were transported as slurry.
ECC continued to acquire steadily the remaining independent china clay producers as well as allied quarrying, stone, building and building materials, and concrete companies, and extended its transport interests. In the last two decades it expanded its activities overseas. A sales presence in the United States that dated back to 1920 became, with the addition of clay manufacturing facilities in Georgia acquired in 1942, the Anglo-American Clays Corporation in 1956. The plant at Sandersville, Georgia, was extended in the 1980s and now specializes in the production of high-brightness hydrous clays and calcined clays. Southern Clay Products in Texas produces ball clay products, and in 1986 ECC acquired the Sylacauga Calcium Products Division of Moretti-Harrah Marble Company, which produces high-quality ground marble. In 1987 the construction aggregate producer J.L. Shiely was acquired in the United States.
In the 1980s ECC, like other United Kingdom companies, started to look at the Pacific region and the Far East as possible areas for development. In 1986, Fuji Kaolin Company, in which ECC had already a 50% interest, became a wholly owned subsidiary of the group, as in the same year did the Kaolin Australia Pty Ltd.
In 1965 a new head office, John Keay House, was opened at St. Austell, Cornwall, which, extended and adapted, remains a quarter of a century later the center of the group’s worldwide operations. Despite its size and the increasingly international scope of its activities, the ECC Group has so far maintained a very low profile. How far this profile will continue at a time when public concern for the environment is increasing remains to be seen.
ECC International Ltd.; ECC International (Sales) Ltd.; ECC America Inc. (U.S.A.); ECCA Calcium Products Inc. (U.S.A.); Anglo-American Clays Corporation (U.S.A.); ECC Construction Materials Ltd.; Associated Asphalt Company Ltd.; ECC Quarries America, Inc. (U.S.A.); J.L. Shiely Company (U.S.A.); ECC Construction Ltd.; E.H. Bradley Estates Ltd.; ECC Overseas Investments Ltd.; English China Clays, Inc. (U.S.A.).
Hudson, Kenneth, The History of English China Clays, Cornwall, ECC Ltd., 1969; ECC in Focus, Cornwall, ECC Group, 1989; There is more to ECC than China Clay, Cornwall, ECC Group, 1989.