Watching Paint Dry


Welcome to the Glamorous, Wicked, Doktor Vulexa of the Kozmik Koatingz Korporation!


In Jan 1992, I attended a job interview at Vulexa Paints in Nottingham. When I returned to Hayford the same day I found my housemates in a state of great excitement: “Where have you been! The agency keeps ringing to speak to you – they want to offer you the job!” Two weeks later I rang the agency to ask why no letter had arrived, only to be told that the firm had cancelled all their plans for recruitment.

In Feb 1992 I went for another interview at Vulexa, this time in a different department. While I was describing my research work, the interviewer cut me short, impatiently saying “Yes yes, all very interesting, but you’ve got no experience. We don’t really need anyone with your background, and we don’t think you’d fit in here.” I was eventually offered the job at Vulexa, and on my first day was taken to see the chief accountant. ‘Right, and where have you come from?’ he asked. I told him I had been living in Middlesbrough; ‘No, no’ he said, ‘I mean which paint firm were you at before?’ When I said that I had never worked in the paint industry, he stopped writing and turned a look of scorn on my boss.

Another odd incident occurred after I had been with the firm for two weeks; one of the staff from the other lab asked me in a friendly manner ‘Oh, by the way, how long are you with us for?’ When I said that I was thinking of twenty years or so, he looked concerned, and said ‘But I thought you were just here as a placement student.’

In 1994 I was transferred to the Plastics Laboratory (which carried out development work on paints for car dashboards and TV sets) and gave my new manager a summary of my research work including the application tests using primers on polypropylene. A few weeks later the manager called two of us into his office and said ‘Right, we’ve been asked to make a coating for polypropylene…here’s the base plastic, and here are some promoters for you to look at.’ There were four bottles of material in front of us – three ‘Lubrizol’ phosphate ester solutions designed to assist bonding to galvanised steel, and one bottle of ‘Eastman’ chlorinated polyolefin emulsion.

I pointed out that this material would probably be very effective, while the other three would almost certainly have no effect. The boss said that he wasn’t interested in my opinions, and that I should just get on with the work as instructed. So I and my colleague went back to the lab, carried out a detailed programme of tests and confirmed that the Eastman material was successful while the other three gave no improvement, regardless of addition level.

We reported these results to the manager, who just sighed, and said ‘You would have to pick the most expensive one…now get back upstairs and carry on testing the others until you find one that works!’

In 1995, after I had been with the company for about three years, the production manager called everyone into a meeting. He had discovered the scurrilous graffiti in the mens’ toilets, and harangued us in furious Anglo-Saxon. The following day he arranged for the writing to be cleaned off, and had a Yale lock fitted to the toilets, so that all the lab staff had to approach the Lab Manager – like the quiz show Blockbusters – asking ‘Can I have a pee please, Bob?’

Then in 1996, having moved to our new site at Hayworth, we were regularly called upon to carry out cleaning duties as unpaid overtime; this would typically involve one hour twice a week. However, on one occasion we were ordered to report for cleaning duties on Saturday morning; this proved too much, and I decided to approach the MSF trade union for advice – a risky move, since union membership was banned at Vulexa.

Popular phrases commonly used at Vulexa included ‘Is there a problem with that?’, ‘You’re not here to think, you’re here to work’, and ‘To err is human; to forgive is not company policy’. The senior lab managers operated a confrontational approach, withholding all technical information from lab staff and having no career development programmes.

And then, in the year 2000, I noticed that my National Insurance number had been wrongly recorded on a wage slip, so I rang the NI office to check that my contributions were being made up. They told me that my payments were up to date; and asked if I was still resident in Oxford. ‘No’ said I, ‘I moved out of there years ago!’ So why had  my employers, the lovely vapid Vulexa Paints, neglected to notify the NI office that I had joined their payroll?

The following article shows a long-term strategic approach taken by Vulexa Paints Ltd, a small manufacturing firm in Birmingham (‘Business Credit News UK’, 15/06/97;


Company representatives attended meetings at a Birmingham hotel organised in the name of the Harland Golfing Society – but their real purpose was to agree not to undercut each other’s prices.

The court was told that the representatives reached an agreement to share information on prices charged to individual customers. Informal consultations took place between 1985 and 1993. The purpose was to prevent a competitor quoting to potential customers prices which would undercut the incumbent supplier.

A second agreement was reached by seven of the companies at a meeting which took place shortly after the devaluation of sterling against the D-Mark in September 1992. The devaluation substantially increased the prices of raw materials for UK manufacturers. The seven agreed to seek a multilateral price increase of 8.5% on their products.

(Apparently this was all connected with powder coatings, which used a different set of raw materials which were priced in Deutschmarks) Miss Pat Edwards, Legal Director at the Office of Fair Trading, said: The parties appear to have been aware that their conduct was unlawful, given that they used an assumed name to book hotel conference facilities. The nine companies who were party to the price notification and maintenance agreement are:

Akzo Powder Coatings Limited (Staffs), Vulexa Surface Coatings Limited [formerly Vulexa Paints Ltd] (Birmingham), Croda Polymers International Limited, Ferro (Great Britain) Limited (West Mids), Herberts Powder Coatings Limited (Co. Durham), Holden Surface Coatings Limited , Courtaulds Coatings (Holdings) Limited, Sonneborn & Rieck Limited (Essex) and Trimite Limited (Avon).

The collusive behaviour was categorised under two main headings:

1. Price-swapping (whereby the nine participants agreed to exchange information on prices currently being charged to individual clients) and

2. Price-fixing (whereby the seven participants agreed at a meeting in October 1992 to impose a multilateral price increase of 8.5% on their powder coatings.) Any breach of an Order made by the Court, or of an undertaking which it has accepted in lieu of an Order, may give rise to proceedings for contempt of court. The Office of Fair Trading operates a task force dedicated to identifying secret price fixing and market sharing cartels, which can be contacted on a 24-hour telephone/fax hot-line number: 0171-269 8888”



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