Norwich plastic cap manufacturer is leading the field
United Closures and Plastics has been operating in Norwich for 50 years. Business writer Ben woods visits the factory for a behind the scenes look at its manufacturing operation, which makes plastic caps for leading household products
Mention Norwich and manufacturing in the same breath and it will conjure up industries of a bygone era.
For many, it will evoke images of the booming shoemaking factories of the 1930's, which – at their peak – employed thousands of people across Norfolk.
But while it is true that nowadays the city's economy is based on the service industry, the concept of 'made in Norwich' has not died out completely.
In fact, one city-based manufacturer is still leading the way when it comes to plastic products.
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Whether it is a squeezy bottle of Heinz tomato ketchup, Radox shower gel, Nurofen painkillers or Harpic toilet cleaner, United Closure and Plastics (UCP Zeller) can lay claim to playing a key part in their creation.
Because each year it makes more than two billion plastic caps and dispensing valves for popular household products at its quarter-of-a-mile-long factory on Salhouse Road.
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The firm – part of the multinational Global Closure Systems – stores 50 tonnes of polymer seeds in 25 silos, which are siphoned into automated moulding machines and transformed into plastic caps for sectors as diverse as pharmaceutical and food.
But it is a 24-hour operation for its 270 staff, which comes with a cost.
According to operations director David Munro, the firm spends about £2.5m on electricity in order to produce its products.
And he said the company is always investigating ways to drive this cost down in a bid to deliver greater efficiency.
But despite the scale of the Norwich operation, UCP Zeller is not solely focussed on producing – it is also a hub for innovation.
Each year, the company invests about £3m back into the factory to fund the upkeep of the moulding machines, or to purchase new tools.
But some of these funds also go into research and development, with the Norwich operation delivering a number of patented products.
The most prolific item to emerge from the factory is the child resistant cap – now widely used across the globe – with the first product made for pharmacy-chain Boots in 1974, before the squeeze-and-turn closure followed in 1986.
It is this reputation for innovation, which has helped the company secure contracts with global firms such as Unilever, Heinz, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and Reckitt Benckiser.
But with high-profile multinational companies for customers comes increasingly high demands and little margin for error.
Not that it is phasing Louis Meyerowitz, UCP Zeller managing director, who admits to putting the same pressure on his customers when it comes to producing quality products. 'In 1973 if we supplied a carton of caps that were incorrect they would probably be thrown in the dustbin,' he said. 'But today, if we supply one cap that is incorrect we will get a complaint launched by the customer who wants to know why it is happened.
'It makes the business demanding because quality is a given. So when you are quoting for a piece of business they expect that premier league standard.'
Some of these demands include a relentless drive for greater efficiency, which can often lead to more automation on the factory floor.
The latest investment for the company is an automated palletising machine making the creation, packing and shipping of plastic closures more streamlined.
But improved automation systems does not always spell good news for staff.
In 1973, the site employed 1,100 people as the business used blow moulding and injection moulding to create a raft of products from shoe heels to plastic cutlery.
But a shift in the company's focus coupled with increased automation on the factory floor saw a reduction in the number of employees.
However, Mr Meyerowitz, said the new palletising system will not lead to people being sacked, but could see staff redeployed to different areas of the business.
He said: 'Our customers understand that we cannot control the price of the oil that makes the polymer, therefore we are allowed to get that back from our customers. But all other costs our customers are extremely keen to fight. We give our employees a pay increase every year. But getting that back from our customers is not an easy thing to do.
'What this forces us to do is to become more efficient. The palletising machine helps us achieve that, but we are not sacking people as a result. We are redeploying people within the business, and in some cases we will not replace.
'And we have other pressures too. Electricity is costly with the increase of green taxes rising to nearer 35pc of the total bill.
'The cost of polymer and foreign exchange rates are the biggest challenges because we are trading quite a lot in euros, dollars and sterling – these are the things that are outside our control as a management team. If we are hit with an issue with the dollar or the euro we just have to deal with it, and while we get polymer price increases back, there is always a delay. However, if the price goes down you have a bit of a birthday.'
Although polymer prices may not fall anytime soon, the firm is still basking in celebration. It recently marked 50 years since the company was founded as UG Key Plastics on the same site in 1963.
Meanwhile, the firm is also keen to stress the satisfaction of its staff, some of which have been with the company for more than 30 years.
But with a rich history behind it, what is next for UCP Zeller?
Mr Meyerowitz said attention will still be paid to developing new products, as well as bringing on a new crop of apprentices.
And as a £50m business, commanding a dominant share of the market, and eyeing 2-3pc growth, it looks like this manufacturing firm will still be a player in Norwich's economic make up for many years to come.