Seventy-five years old, Ozark Fluorine Specialties is hardly an emerging company by most standards. But for employees enjoying two years now under new owners, Ozark is indeed emerging--from a decade of inertia.
Ozark was formed in Tulsa, Okla., in 1924 as Ozark Chemical Co., a sulfuric acid producer that later branched into phosphoric and hydrofluoric acid. Ozark's biggest claim to fame is pioneering the manufacture of sodium monofluorophosphate, which Colgate-Palmolive named MFP and put in one of the first fluoridated toothpastes. The company is still the only U.S. maker of the three major dental fluorides.
CHARGED UP This plant, which just opened in Tulsa, makes a fluorine-based battery electrolyte. OZARK FLUORINE PHOTO
Ozark became part of Ozark-Mahoning when it merged with the fluorspar producer Mahoning Mining in 1946, and then part of Pennwalt through a 1974 acquisition. Through the ownership changes, the Tulsa business operated with relative independence. However, that changed in 1990 when Elf Atochem bought Pennwalt.
According to Philip E. Rakita, Ozark's director of business development, acquisition by the French company began a shift of management control to Atochem offices in Philadelphia and Paris. At the same time, spending on the business slowed. "During the next 10 years, there was a lack of what would be considered normal investment in the fluorine specialties business," Rakita says.
Atochem earmarked the Tulsa business for sale in January 1998--just months after Rakita joined it from another Atochem division. Subsequently, he says, Ozark was "managed to optimize its divestment rather than its long-term future."
In California, meanwhile, another firm was developing a need for fluorine. The waste management company Toxco had entered the lithium battery recycling business in the early 1990s and was marketing the resulting by-products, mainly low-priced lithium carbonate. Toxco took a further plunge into lithium chemicals in 1995 when it acquired 55 million lb of surplus lithium hydroxide from the Department of Energy and formed a new subsidiary, LithChem.
Terry Adams, president of both Ozark Fluorine and LithChem, says LithChem's chief outlet for lithium hydroxide was the grease industry. LithChem had its eye on lithium hexafluorophosphate, the key electrolyte used in rechargeable batteries for laptop computers and cellular phones. It was a much higher valued market--and would close the business loop for Toxco--but to enter it, the company needed anhydrous hydrogen fluoride chemistry.
So when LithChem went looking for fluorine capability and came across Ozark, the fit was ideal. "It was the right-sized acquisition and the perfect platform," Adams says.
Toxco bought Ozark in August 2000 and, according to Adams, immediately began building an LiPF6 plant and resuscitating Ozark's core inorganic fluorine chemistry business. The LiPF6 plant started up last month at a cost of more than $5 million, and the rebuilding of the fluorine business is ongoing.
Rakita says the construction of the electrolyte plant had the side effect of introducing Ozark to organic solvents. "For 50 years, we were all inorganic," he says. "Now people are learning how to handle and work with organic solvents."
This new ability is complemented by another Toxco investment: the purchase of 55 electrolysis cells that generate elemental fluorine from HF. The cells--DOE surplus that had been lying idle in Paducah, Ky.-- are now being installed at the Tulsa site.
When they are up and running, Rakita says, Ozark will have expanded from a company that made only inorganic fluorides from HF to one that can make organic and inorganic compounds from both HF and F2. "Our strategic direction is to become a one-stop shop for fluorine specialties," he says.
In particular, Ozark is pursuing business with research chemists in the pharmaceutical industry, where Rakita says a lot of the molecules in the development pipeline have fluorine in them. He wants Ozark to become known as the company to go to for difficult or novel fluorine chemistry.
Rakita, who earned a Ph.D. in organometallic chemistry from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is looking partly to the academic world for the means to do it.
In July, Ozark licensed technology developed by University of Idaho chemistry professor Jean'ne M. Shreeve for the manufacture of electrophilic trifluoromethylating reagents. The company has worked with University of Alabama chemistry professor Robin D. Rogers on the commercialization of ionic liquids, notably butylmethylimidazolium hexafluorophosphate, which the company is now scaling up to pilot quantities.
OZARK IS ALSO developing expertise in superacid chemistry based on derivatives of PF5, a compound that can be a coproduct of making LiPF6. Academic chemists, such as 1994 Nobel Prize winner George A. Olah, Rakita notes, have demonstrated carbon framework rearrangement using superacids as catalysts.
"Most of this research has been academic because heretofore nobody has been able to provide, at an attractive price, the reagents needed to do it on an industrial scale," he says. "We believe we can offer the chemical industry, in quantity, strong acids to do chemistry that hasn't been able to be done before."
At present, Ozark employs some 35 to 40 people in Tulsa along with six, including Rakita, in a small office outside of Philadelphia. Adams won't disclose detailed financial information, but he says the combined sales of Ozark and LithChem are about $15 million per year.
Although Ozark is modest in size, Adams and Rakita see the potential for sales to jump, based on the new investment and the enthusiasm that is now bubbling out of company employees. "In an organization that was previously hunkered down, I'm seeing a 180-degree change," Rakita says. "People are starting to take the initiative to solve problems and do things better. It's a very different place now."