Upstart cleans up in battle over liquid detergent

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The Independent Online
ALBRIGHT & WILSON, the chemicals company floated by US oil giant Tenneco last February, has lost its battle to protect a near stranglehold on the formula for liquid laundry detergents such as Whisk and Liquid Persil.

The defeat at the hands of the irrepressible Belfast upstart, SB Chemicals, came in the High Court on Thursday when Albright dropped a four-year patent infringement case.

Despite the failure, Albright is sticking with a statement in its flotation prospectus that even a negative outcome to the case would not hurt its bottom line. Its British and European patents have eight years to run.

Last year, its "heavy duty liquid" technology was praised in research by broker Barclays de Zoete Wedd. Of the four top manufacturers in the UK, only Procter & Gamble uses a rival formula.

SB Chemicals hopes to start producing 10,000 tonnes of its detergent a year within two months - a level that would take an estimated pounds 9m out of Albright's pounds 180m UK market. It is already negotiating deals with bigger companies to take advantage of its legal success as quickly as possible.

"We stuffed them," exclaimed Sean Hall, SB Chemicals' founder and managing director, as the case, which has cost his company pounds 600,000, closed. "They've kept everyone out of this market until now. They believed our resistance would crumble too, but it didn't."

SB Chemicals had also filed two counter-suits alleging that Albright's formula was not patentable in the first place, but these have now been dropped. It has not made any decision over other legal avenues.

Albright currently supplies 95 per cent of the UK private label market for heavy-duty liquid detergents from its Whitehaven plant in Cumbria. Large brand-name manufacturers, including Unilever and Colgate-Palmolive, produce their own liquid soaps under licence from it.

The plaintiff made the surprise decision to drop the case after volumes of last-minute evidence were rejected by Mr Justice Jacob because they would have delayed the trial and placed an unfair burden on SB Chemicals. The judge appears to have been acting on government recommendations that civil cases be streamlined.

The David and Goliath dispute - Albright has 100 times SB's sales - began four years ago when Mr Hall's researchers stumbled on a way to suspend detergents in a liquid by binding them with silica, which, it claims, is not part of Albright's technique.