Sunday, September 09
LENOX

It was a remarkable scene at Cranwell Resort's ballroom last Tuesday morning as the red carpet was rolled out for about 40 executives and employees of Saudi Basic Industries Corp. (Sabic). The worldwide petrochemical giant, 70 percent owned by the Saudi Arabian government and now employing 27,000, had just completed its $11.6 billion acquisition of GE Plastics — a watershed event for Berkshire County if ever there was one.

At Sabic Innovative Plastics, the division will be staffed by about 10,300 in 60 locations nationally and internationally, with the world headquarters remaining, and expanding, in Pittsfield.

Nearly all the area's captains of business and industry were there, along with Berkshire lawmakers, Mayors James Ruberto and John Barrett, and Gov. Deval Patrick — some 60 in all. Patrick charmed the crowd by giving a quick language and etiquette lesson so that the Sabic delegation could be greeted in unison with the traditional Arabic salutation translated as "Peace be with you."

Patrick certainly knows how to work a room, and his brief remarks had significant implications. "We're here to do whatever is necessary to ensure your success in Massachusetts," he declared after stressing the importance of the partnership with the Saudis. The governor spoke of a "long-term relationship" that would offer Sabic the opportunity to grow in Massachusetts.

The Sabic VIPs said all the right things — Prince Saud bin Abdullah bin Thenayan Al-Saud, the company chairman, told the assembled crowd that "we will work together to strengthen our business and our investment," pointing out that Sabic sells its products in more than 100 countries.

Mohamed H. Al-Mady, Sabic's vice chairman and CEO, quipped that the company had raised its offer to GE because it was "very impressed" with the people running the plastics division's world headquarters in Pittsfield during his visit in May. Later, Al-Mady told reporters that, he had awakened at 5 in the morning and strolled Cranwell's wooded grounds — clearly, the area's scenic wonders made an impression.

As Tyler Fairbank, president of the Berkshire Economic Development Corporation, emphasized to Sabic's leaders that "we will do everything in our power ... to convince you to grow and expand in the Berkshires."

That's the key question on the minds of local residents who have watched the transition — is Sabic here to stay for the long haul, and what are the prospects for maintaining, or expanding, the current work force of about 425 that the Saudis inherited from GE?

The answers are very encouraging — Sabic Innovative Plastics has a 20-year lease on the former GE Plastics campus. The company is actively hiring, especially in the human resources, legal and finance sectors, because many of the corporate functions formerly handled by GE at its Fairfield, Conn., headquarters will now be staffed by Sabic right here in Pittsfield. It's safe to project ultimate employment growth of perhaps another 75 to 100 in the near future — an expansion of 20 to 25 percent in the local work force.

As Fairbank pointed out during a follow-up interview, Sabic is "betting the farm" that its investment here will lead to further growth. There is even a possibility that the company could add new product lines down the road, which could trigger even more expansion in the region and the state.

Sabic's global training center will be here in Pittsfield, as the company's CEO Brian Gladden explained at Cranwell; GE Plastics had run that program in New York. This will inject a strong shot of adrenaline into the local economy, as hundreds of employees from the company's other facilities will need long-term hotel rooms and will be dining out and spending money right here during their training period. Sabic also will be hosting visits by current and future customers — another source of income for the region, especially during the fall, winter and spring.

As Gladden put it: "With Sabic as our parent company, we are now part of the most profitable and powerful petrochemical company in the world." As it turned out, Sabic's arrival was the best possible outcome once GE decided to shed its plastics business and leave the Berkshires once and for all — except for still-pending Housatonic River cleanups.

White knights are usually to be found in fairy tales.

But in this case, it's a reality. All indications point to a happy ending — and that's something that's sorely needed for a city and a county where doubts and skepticism persist among some people, despite impressive evidence that a new chapter of major economic expansion already is being written.

Clarence Fanto is a former managing editor of The Eagle. He can be contacted by e-mail at cfanto@yahoo.com.