Italmatch 25th Anniversary – From matches to specialty chemicals (1998)

To celebrate its 25th anniversary, we begin a journey through the Italmatch's history. Today we start from its first steps in 1998

Communications Office

Italmatch Chemicals has celebrated its 25th anniversary. It is the story of a pioneering dream that began in 1998 with a small MBO in central Italy. Much has changed over the years. The company have expanded into new countries, taken on ambitious projects and brought its solutions to new markets.

To celebrate this important milestone, today we begin a journey through the history of Italmatch: a series of articles to discover the highlights that have marked the company from day one to the present day.

Where and how we started

Let’s call it a paradox, or a twist of fate, but if we want to condense the first 25 years of Italmatch Chemicals’ history into an image, we could use the exact opposite of what, after all, started everything: a match. Because if the latter, by definition, produces the largest and most significant blaze as soon as it is lit, and then quickly consumes itself until it burns out, Italmatch, instead, was born from a relatively small entrepreneurial “blaze” which however has grown constantly over time, fuelling a story that continues to evolve today, driving us into tomorrow.

As stated, everything started with matches. More precisely in 1929, from the establishment of SAFFA, the Società Azionaria Fabbriche Fiammiferi ed Affini, whose company name was changed to Società Anonima Fabbriche Fiammiferi ed Affini in 1937. This was the evolution of the previous Società Anonima Fabbriche Riunite di Fiammiferi, which at the end of the nineteenth century had brought together into a single company the 13 most important factories in Italy in the production of an almost essential tool for that time: the match.

Returning to more strictly entrepreneurial events, during the twentieth century it gradually became increasingly clear that the match industry had no future, replaced instead by new technologies of products such as lighters and gas lighters. Despite the diversification project that SAFFA implemented in 1998, the Bonomi Bolchini family decided to sell the chemical branch of the group.

The management buyout

At this at this point that the story of Italmatch Chemicals begins to take shape. In fact, Sergio lorio, at that time managing director of that SAFFA subsidiary, who understood the enormous business potential that industrial applications of phosphorus could have. He thus decided to acquire the SAFFA chemical branch.

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The historical SAFFA factory in Spoleto, Italy
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Shared by Sergio Iorio - CEO & Founder Italmatch Chemicals Group
"In 1998 we carried out a management buyout with the support of two private equity funds, 21 Invest, led by Andrea Bonomi and Alessandro Benetton, and Iniziativa Piemonte led by Gustavo Denegri, former CEO of Piaggio. With an operation worth approximately 20 billion lire, we purchased the plant that dealt with extremely niche chemicals. At the end of the 1990s, obviously the matches market was dying, but we identified opportunities in this chemistry."

Geographically the company was located in Spoleto, Umbria, with a factory employing around 40 workers. For strategic reasons, the management was initially and temporarily located in Magenta, SAFFA former headquarters.

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Shared by Sergio Iorio - CEO & Founder Italmatch Chemicals Group
"Following the SAFFA Group's decision to close that seat, we decided to create our headquarters from scratch in Genoa, where the administrative, financial and corporate management activity still takes place today."
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Long term contract signing ceremony with Italmatch and Exxon-Shell teams

Thus, the history of Italmatch Chemicals began in the sector of industrial applications of phosphorus. The first was its use as an anti-wear and antioxidant additive in the world of car lubrication. The first long-term contract was signed in Spoleto with Exxon Chemicals. It is interesting to point out that phosphorus, up to that point, had been used for its flammability. In fact, it was placed on the tops of matches so that they would catch fire quickly. Italmatch Chemicals, on the other hand, knew how to use it for the exact opposite: as a flame retardant. In particular, research focused on the development of halogen-free products which guaranted extremely limited emission of non toxic smoke in the event of a fire. It was a very heartfelt issue given the tragic fire at Cinema Statuto in Turin, a sad chapter in Italian history with 63 people losing their lives not so much from the fire but from the exhalation of toxic gases caused by the combustion of plastic materials of which curtains and armchairs were made, as at Düsseldorf airport in 1996, where a fire caused the burning of electrical cables which emitted toxic smoke claiming 17 lives.

Flame retardants

For the flame retardant market, therefore, phosphorus-based flame retardants were a crucial turning point, which Italmatch was able to create a solid base for its initial growth. Today, this technology is the most requested by manufacturers of articles for electronics, IT and mobile telephony, as well as for pipes, electrical panels and cables, which require high safety standards. The industrial development of Italmatch and the growth of internal European demand confirmed that the path was the right one: Italmatch’s balance sheet, which in 1998 had closed with a turnover of 16.8 million Euros, in 2000 already exceeded 20 million. Although Italmatch Chemicals had now become a consolidated reality, the myth of SAFFA was well rooted in Spoleto city.

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Flame retardants masterbatches
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Shared by Maurizio Leonardi, who worked in the plant already in 1996, under the previous management, is today the Quality & Technical Assistance Manager of Italmatch
"It has remained in the memories of Spoleto for years, and still today in the toponymy of the town. The first time that Professor Ivano Bertini from the University of Florence met us, he pleasantly called us 'little matchmakers'. Bertini was a leading personality in the panorama of international bioinorganic chemistry who supported us in tests and quality control."
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Shared by Ugo Zucchelli, who arrived a few years later and is now Global Sales and Technical Assistance Manager of the Flame Retardants division
"These were years of great excitement and desire to grow. We didn't have highly cutting-edge structures and unlimited resources, but the enthusiasm allowed us to expand quickly. Initially, the plant in Spoleto did not have an equipped lab. Until the mid-2000s, in fact, external facilities were used. We relied on Isrim - Istituto Superiore Materiali Speciali in Terni, to which we took the product samples for testing."
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Sergio Iorio during a BASF event

The turning point for Italmatch was when the know-how gained in phosphorus-based Halogen-Free Flame Retardants caught the attention of BASF, a global giant in the chemical industry. Shortly afterwards, a long-term agreement was signed with Infineum, a leading automotive lubricants company, joint venture of Shell and ExxonMobil. From a niche producer of products derived from phosphorus, Italmatch therefore became a business positioned on the international market, an actual point of reference for some of the largest industries in the world. The Spoleto plant is today a consolidated industrial enterprise, the main supplier in Europe of phosphorus-based products for lubrication and flame retardants. Its laboratory has also today become a point of reference in Europe for the development of new generation batteries for electric cars.

In 1999, the eyes of the new Italmatch Chemicals soon turned eastwards to China, the first foreign location outside Italy for the company.

Learn more about our first steps in China. Click the button below to read the article:

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