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The polymaths of polymers

On 1 June this year, shares in Fenner ceased trading after its acquisition by the French tyre maker Michelin. It had been a public company since 1937.

The £655m-turnover Hull-based company, which was founded by Joseph Fenner in 1861 and began by producing leather belts, is the world’s largest conveyor belt manufacturer.

It’s not a household name - because Fenner products are often deep underground. From combinations of woven polymer fabrics, compounded rubber and steel cord, Fenner’s belts are widely used in the mining industry because of their combination of high tensile strength and fire resistant capabilities. Its conveyor belts will also be found in ports where they are used by bulk handling facilities and at coal-fired power stations.

But it is not just about conveyor belts. Fenner is a world leader in reinforced polymer technology. The French tyre kings - who know a thing or two about rubber - clearly recognise the expertise that they are buying. Here is what Michelin said when they announced the £1.2bn purchase of the company.

“Fenner has successfully established itself as a world leader in reinforced polymer technology. Its two divisions, AEP and ECS, comprise businesses which have developed strong positions in their chosen markets across the world, based on business philosophies which emphasise continued investment in product development, the highest standards of customer service and a network of well-invested and efficient manufacturing facilities.”

Fenner’s deep specialist knowledge therefore extends to seals for pumps and valves for those industries - such as oil and gas - which are big users of hydraulic machinery. It makes plastic and textile products - so-called “elastomeric solutions” - such as belts for printers and hoses used on diesel vehicles, in agriculture and in the fracturing process in oil and gas exploration. Fenner products are used in single-use medical devices for heart surgery, orthopaedics, cell therapy and blood treatments.

Yet the purchase of this world-leading specialist manufacturer, based in Humberside and employing 5,000 employees in 20 countries around the world, didn’t raise a flicker of political excitement.

For one thing, it was at a good price for the shareholders. Second, Michelin has said it does not intend to make redundancies. There won’t be “any material change” to Fenner’s R&D, and Fenner’s expertise may well be “positioned as the cornerstone of Michelin's materials division for highly engineered polymers.” And while global HQ is now in Clermont-Ferrand in France, Fenner’s head office remains in Hessle.

So despite its new owners, we hope that life at Fenner will continue to trundle on - valuable but unheralded - rather like ore on one of its conveyor belts.


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