The Death of Competition is the name of one of today's most popular business management books. To a casual observer of the plastics industry, it's easy to accept the book's premise at face value.
In the past year some of the biggest rivals in the chemical and plastics businesses have decided to link up to make either plastic resin or parts. These aren't big fish swallowing little fish, or little companies forming strategic alliances with market leaders. These are the Ford Motor Co.'s, the General Motors Corp.'s and the Volkswagen AG's of the plastics world deciding to develop or make new products together.
The most obvious of these new ventures is DuPont Dow Elastomers, a new $1 billion company formed by the U.S.'s two largest chemical producers, but there are numerous others as well. General Electric Plastics has joined with BASF Corp. to develop new plastic body-panel technology for cars, and DuPont just announced a $750 million venture with BASF's German parent to manufacture and sell nylon in Asia.
Such moves are not unique, of course. Automakers have been hooking up for years; GM has formed joint ventures with Toyota Motor Corp. and Suzuki Motor Corp. to build cars in North America; Chrysler Corp. tied up for a few years with Mitsubishi Motors Corp. to do the same. Ford had a brief, troubled marriage with VW in Brazil. GM and Chrysler still are successfully building transmissions together with New Venture Gear in Indiana.
Still, isn't it a little weird competing against a company for years and then suddenly being in business with them?
Not really, say many insiders.
"Companies may be arch-rivals in some areas and complementary in others," points out Kip Nickel, general manager-automotive, at GE Plastics. "If you look at the amount of technology and resources required for new processes and new technology, they (joint ventures) are a way to share risks and rewards and bring technology to the marketplace faster." Clearly that's what GE and BASF are trying to do in the risky, technology-intensive business of plastic body panels, where competition from steel, aluminum and other plastics is intense.
"In our case, DuPont and Dow were really not rivals in the elastomers industry, says Rick Bond, automotive manager for Dupont Dow elastomers. "Dow had a small elastomers business. We had very complementary strengths." A lot of joint ventures are formed because companies with overlapping businesses want to cut costs, but that's not the case with DuPont Dow, he says.
This new venture, Mr. Bond says -- and analysts agree -- is a high-growth company focused on using the strengths of each partner in the rapidly expanding elastomer market. It combines DuPont's leadership position in synthetic rubber with Dow's proprietary processing technologies. This combination of technological and marketing capabilities should provide customers with a more competitive range of products than currently available, Mr. Bond says, the new technology lowers production costs, too. He expects sales to double to $2 billion by 2000.
Diane Gulyas, global business director for Zytel nylon at DuPont, admits going into business with a rival might seem strange to some. But she says competitors in the petroleum industry -- where plastics get their feedstocks -- routinely collaborate to develop new oil fields, and then compete with products refined from the crude oil.
The nylon "intermediate" chemicals DuPont will be making with BASF in Asia -- possibly China -- are commodity products analogous to crude oil, she says. The new joint venture will allow DuPont and BASF to combine their latest processing technologies to get the lowest-cost chemical components for resins that will later be turned into proprietary engineering polymers such as Zytel.
"What's taking place is that BASF is putting in some technology they have, we have some technology, and combined they give us some advantages neither could have alone," Ms. Gulyas says.
John Jack, strategic planning manager for Zytel, equates it with the Big Three's USCAR (United States Council for Automotive Research) organization, where rivals are cooperating to develop specific technologies that later will be turned into competitive products. Under the umbrella of USCAR, for example, Big Three automakers are collaborating on the development of an 80mpg (34 km/L car). If the program goes as scheduled, each automaker eventually will have a unique version of the car, which will incorporate some of the jointly developed technologies.
DuPont and BASF have been building nylon businesses in Asia-Pacific since the early '90s, and each has numerous wholly-owned elements currently in place. DuPont, for instance, already has a nylon-related chemical plant and a Zytel polymer unit in Singapore, and engineering compounding facilities in Japan, Korea and Singapore. DuPont and BASF are working together to find a suitable site for the plant in Asia. China is a leading candidate. Plant construction is scheduled to begin in 1998 and be completed in 2001.
By then, maybe China will have merged with Russia.