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Conversation with Chevron Oronite’s Des King

By Vicky Villena-Denton

Prior to joining Chevron Corp. in 1981 as a process engineer in Chevron Research Company, Desmond (Des) King was a college professor. He took a job at Chevron Research in Richmond, Calif., U.S.A., to get “real industry experience,” where he hoped to stay for a few years before going back to teaching.

Instead, he spent the last 36 years at Chevron in different parts of the world.  At Edmonton, Canada, he was general manager of Alberta Envirofuels from 1997 to 1999, then later in Pembroke, Wales he was general manager of Chevron’s refinery there, and later down under he was managing director and CEO of Caltex Australia Ltd. from 2006 to 2009.

(Chevron Corp.’s wholly owned subsidiary Chevron Global Energy Inc. sold its 50% stake in Caltex Australia in March 2015.)

Prior to being appointed Oronite president in September 2013, King was president of Chevron Technology Ventures, which champions innovation, commercialization and integration of emerging technologies and related new business models within the corporation.

King stepped down in January as president of Chevron Oronite Co. LLC, as Bruce Chinn took over the helm. He spent three months last year traveling with Chinn to meet key customers and visiting Oronite’s global facilities. He retires officially next month.

Originally from England, King received a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Imperial College of Science and Technology, University of London, in 1976, and a doctorate degree in chemical engineering from the University of Cambridge in 1979.

After his retirement, King says he and his wife, who is American, plan to stay in northern California. “We like the food, we like the wine, we like the climate,” he says, although they plan to go back to Scotland quite often where their son is attending the University of St. Andrews.

F&L Asia sat down with King during the 100th anniversary celebration of Chevron Oronite held last November at its 23 hectare-Singapore plant on Sakra Island, which began commercial production in January 1999.

The festive event was attended by key customers and special guest of honor Lim Hng Kiang, Singapore’s minister for trade and industry (trade). The celebration coincided with the completion of Oronite’s new carboxylate unit. Carboxylate was exclusively produced at Oronite’s Gonfreville, France facility prior to this. With the new carboxylate unit in Singapore, Oronite essentially doubled its carboxylate capacity. Carboxylate is an effective, sulphur-free detergent used in several marine lubricant additive packages and some automotive lubricant additive packages.

King reminisced a little bit on Oronite’s past which dates back to the early days of Chevron when it was known as Standard Oil of California (SOCAL), one of the companies formed as a result of the breakup of Standard Oil, which was founded by John Rockefeller in 1870. SOCAL had a fuels and lubricants additives division and used the name Oronite to label petroleum-based additive products in 1917.

Even Oronite is unsure where its name came from. “Nobody knows for certain,” says King, “but there are two theories.” The first theory is that the name is a combination of the Spanish words gold (oro) and darkness (nite), loosely interpreted as ‘black gold,’ a term used for petroleum in the old days. The second theory is that Oronite was the name of a jet-black racehorse owned by J.C. Fitzsimmons, a Standard Oil executive. The story goes that Fitzsimmons thought the name would also be appropriate for a company trademark!

“I’ll let you decide which theory you like better, but in either case, I think it’s safe to say the name has been building a proud legacy ever since its Standard Oil debut,” says King.

One of Oronite’s early products was an anti-chatter additive used to lubricate the iconic Ford Model T’s engine belts in the mid-1920’s.

In the early days, Oronite manufactured products “that you might not expect,” says King. These included applications such as Oronite Cleaning Fluid, Oronite Furniture Polish and Oronite Shingle Oil for wood shingle roofs.

Oronite’s additives technology also was used in the U.S. submarine fleet to help extend the range and effectiveness of the fleet’s diesel engines. In 1941, Standard Oil was asked by the U.S. Navy to establish a centrally located additive supply facility, Oronite’s Oak Point plant in Belle Chasse, La.

When Chevron formed a petrochemical joint venture with Phillips Petroleum Company, now known as Chevron Phillips Chemical Company, in 2000, Chevron Oronite, which was part of Chevron Chemical Co., stayed with parent Chevron Corp., because it did not provide “strong synergies with Phillips’ operations.”

The former Oronite president says the greatest challenge recently has been the marine business which has been under a lot of pressure.

“The marine industry in general has been very challenged. We have a good position in marine but the whole shipping industry has been under pressure. The economic downturn has impacted them very severely.”

The move to lower-sulphur fuels by 2020 will further impact the marine business, he says. “Our goal is to stay a leader [in the marine lubricant additive business] but recognizing our products will evolve as our customer needs change.”