Celanese: 'This really is the end of an era. Celanese has been a huge part of people's lives'
THE sight of 20,000 Celanese workers leaving the factory after another shift was once a vision to behold.
Not even Rolls-Royce, currently Derby's largest single private sector employer with 12,000 staff, could hold a candle to the size of Celanese's workforce back in the 1920s when the company was in its pomp.
Today, the Megaloughton Lane factory is a shadow of its former self.
This iconic Derby business, which had been operating for almost a century, has succumbed to global economics.
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The death of the Celanese Acetate Spondon plant, which made acetate flake used in cigarette filters, has been slow, painful and drawn out.
The first indication that the end of the plant was nigh came in April, 2010, when the factory was employing 450 – a fraction of what it had during its glory days.
Its American owner, Dallas-based Celanese Corporation, which had taken over the business in 2007, announced plans to shut the factory – a move which would reportedly save the firm £36 million a year.
Soaring UK energy prices were the brutal economics on which it based its plan.
Instead, it wanted to concentrate production in Belgium, the US and Mexico, where power costs were cheaper.
The production of acetate flake is a very energy-hungry business.
A large amount of heat and steam is used in the chemical process that turns wood pulp into acetate flake.
More steam is required in the production of cigarette filters, Celanese Acetate's core product.
But in 2010, energy prices in the UK had skyrocketed by 16.7% against an average increase of just 3.8% in the European Union.
Spondon had tried to reduce its costs by laying off staff and negotiating new contracts with suppliers of raw materials. But they were unable to save enough money on energy costs to keep the business alive.
Unions tried in vain to persuade the company's bosses to sell the business, which made 35,000 tonnes of material a year, as a going concern.
To the workers it seemed that to all intents and purposes it was not so much a "plan" to close but really a "decision" to close.
But there was to be a temporary reprieve.
The reason for the change of heart by the American owners was not because of the impassioned pleas by the unions but a natural disaster on the other side of the world.
In April last year – exactly a year after Celanese Corporation announced the closure – company bosses confirmed that the Spondon plant would remain open a little longer because of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami.
Production of acetate tow in the Far East was badly affected by tsunami damage.
Keeping the Spondon factory open was one way of making up for a potential global shortfall in supply.
Celanese itself had no factories in Japan but its competitors did. That meant there could potentially be extra demand for Celanese products.
Although it was good news that the factory would not be shutting that year, the general consensus among the workforce was that it was just putting off the inevitable.
There is a human cost to the decision that has been made in a Dallas boardroom.
For some workers at the Spondon plant, Celanese is all they have known.
Joining the company straight from school, they have spent their entire careers working at the plant.
The fact that the average length of service of employees at the Spondon factory is 23 years gives you some idea of how much of a part Celanese has played in their lives. And their average age is 47.
Ian Hawley is one of those long-servers. He has worked at Celanese for almost 25 years and is works convenor for the Unite union.
He said: "This really is the end of an era. Celanese has been a massive part of people's lives. To think that this is finally the end of almost 100 years of production is very sad.
"When I started at the business back in the 1980s there were around 10,000 people employed at the site.
"Of course, we have had more than two years to prepare for this closure but it doesn't make it any easier.
"The staff here have done everything that has been asked of them.
"Their professionalism has been outstanding.
"The management here have also fought hard to save the site but it would seem that nothing was going to stop the owners from closing Derby.
"It makes no sense because demand for the product is still strong."
JonMcNeil, 51, of Spondon, joined Celanese in 1989 as a fitter machinist.
Several members of his family worked at the business, including his grandfather, mother and father, and even his son, Joshua.
Jon said: "Four generations of my family have worked at Celanese. It's played a major part in our lives and it's incredibly sad to see it go.
"Celanese is a major part of Spondon. I don't think there's many people in this area that don't have some kind of connection to the business.
"I joined the company from the railways. Back then the company was called Courtaulds. I was 28 at the time and the site was home to thousands of workers. It was always busy and there was a real buzz about the place.
"When you work with people every day they become like extended family.
"That family is now being broken up and it's likely that we may not see each other again. I will miss them, for sure."
Jon, who was a health and safety specialist at the site, was made redundant two weeks ago. Son Joshua was also made redundant earlier in the year.
Jon said: "It has been a sad time ever since they first announced plans to close the site in 2010.
"It has dragged on and it puts a lot of pressure on you when the axe is hovering over you for that length of time.
"If truth be told, the temporary reprieve we got just prolonged the inevitable.
"It also gave some of the workers hope that the factory might be kept open in the long term but clearly that was never going to happen.
"Maybe there should have been more help from the Government to persuade Celanese to stay in Derby."
Jon considers himself one of the lucky ones. He has already found a new job working in health and safety at a firm in Stafford.
He said: "I wish the guys all the luck in the world but I believe that some of them may struggle, particularly the ones who have been there a long time.
"Working at the same place for so long kind of makes you institutionalised. We are an ageing workforce and it will be difficult for some of them to get another job."
The Moon pub, just a few hundred yards from the factory in Station Street, has been the hostelry of choice for Celanese staff at the end of the working day.
Generations of the same family have worked at Celanese and drunk together at the pub, which today is run by husband and wife Gavin and Jayne Bradshaw.
Jayne said: "In recent times the trade we got from Celanese workers has only formed a small part of our takings, so we will be OK.
"But the Celanese workers we do get come in religiously. They have become friends and we will miss them.
"We've only been at the pub a year, so it's difficult for us to imagine what it was like when Celanese was in its hey-day. I've heard that they used to send a runner from the pub down to the factory to get the orders in before the shift ended. The pints would then all be lined up on the bar waiting for the workers when they finished.
"But the spirit of Celanese will live on at the pub. Once a month, we have groups of former Celanese workers who come in to meet up and chat about the good old days.
"But it is sad that all that will be left will be their memories."