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The Early Days

Growing demand for Rayon saw the Algemene Kunstzijde Unie (AKU) [ English: General Rayon Union] – formerly known as Enka – commission the construction of a cellulose fibre factory in order to supply such fibres to clothing manufacturers. Arnhem, more specifically, the Kleefse Waard, once part of the historic Duchy of Cleve which was annexed by the Netherlands in 1816.

Civil engineer, A.J. Engel – who would later become its managing director – was commissioned to construct a modern and efficient factory on the site. During the post-war years, the factory would contribute to the expansion of the AKU and to the growth of the Dutch economy.

War Years and Coffee

In the early years, the Kleefse Waard site provided jobs for no less than two thousand people. As the Germans were longer able to import any wool and cotton, the factory presented an opportunity for remedying that scarcity and so they initially decided to continue production.

In the autumn of 1944 all activities were nevertheless ceased. The only unit that was to remain operational was the site’s power station as it had since come to also supply power to Arnhem and its surrounding area, as the Nijmegen plant had been knocked out.

Production was reinstated after the war, with the site being expanded with a range of new developments, including a spinning mill which produced cellulose fibres used in tyres. There had been great demand for tyres during that time, with cellulose fibres as a raw material gaining in popularity at the expense of cotton fibres.

Another milestone worth mentioning was the introduction of two coffee machines. These were put into operation at the Kleefse Waard in August of 1961. “The big hit was hot cocoa”, according to the book, Kleefse Waard Goud Waard.

Early Green Consciousness

1969 saw the AKU and Koninklijke Zout Organon (KZO) merge into the AKZO conglomerate. The merger would prove the end for the AKU’s characteristic red logo.

A few years later, the company magazine, Spindop, made the very first mention of the negative side-effects to spinning cellulose fibres. Though the initial focus would be on battling the smells that accompanied its production, this was to be added to in later years by its impact on soil and water quality.

As of 1971 environmental issues would become discussed on a regular basis. Energy saving measures was one such topic and this would see campaigns like the ‘Energie idee? Hier ermee!’ [English: “Got an energy idea? – Bring it to me!”]

Following a 1975 market survey into declining sales, company management moved to begin laying off staff. By the end of 1979 1,277 people would remain in a job at the site. Years of losses would eventually be capped by the making of a modest profit.

State of the Art

Several very successful products were to be developed at the site that had since become and engine for the entire region. These included, e.g. Colbond, Colback and the Enka chamois. The Kleefse Waard was to even become the most modern manufacturer of rayon tyre belts with its HFL 12 million factory employing 50 workers across four shifts.

Communication was the main theme at the site’s 50th anniversary, i.e. communicating with local and national governments; with the wider industry on the industrial sector’s place in the urban environment; and communicating with employees and suppliers alike. Open Days were hosted back then, too, with such events increasingly featuring topics such as transparency and hospitality. One such an event offered six hundred secondary school pupils the opportunity of expanding their knowledge on site.

And much as it is today, a great many request for guided tours were submitted then, too. This began as early as 1947, with Saturday afternoon tours of the site becoming a fixed weekly event. The Dutch Royal Institute of Engineers [Dutch: Koninklijk Instituut van Ingenieurs], for example, paid the site a visit with their diesel-electric train taking them right to the foot of the front steps of the site’s offices.

The former head of Akzo Fibers Communications wrote: “If we went and met all requests now, the ‘Kleef’ would need an entire team of hosts and tour guides.” Fixed visiting protocol and programming wasn’t very popular back then, either, so it was decided that all visiting parties, foreign and domestic, would be hosted in a manner that would cater to that group’s specific needs.

Restructuring and Decentralisation

The Nineties were mostly about restructuring and decentralisation. AKZO acquired Swedish firm, Nobel, in 1994, with the now new Akzo Nobel conglomerate purchasing British firm Courtaulds four years later. The umbrella company was to be named ACORDIS in a move that would also see its various business units decentralised and given their own names. This saw companies such as Colbond come into being, which would later be bought by Low & Bonar. And Twaron, which would later come to be sold to Japanese firm, Teijin.

Cordenka – the once revered manufacturer of rayon industrial yarns for tyre belts – was closed down in 1996. Though the number of workers employed at the Kleefse Waard continued to drop, attention to pollution – carbon, sulphur and stench emissions – was on the rise. ACORDIS eventually decided to put the site, along with all of its resident companies – many of which were former AKZO companies – up for sale.

Sustainability and Innovation retake centre stage

With the help of  Arnhem council, the site was purchased from AkzoNobel in 2003 with the aim of redeveloping it into an attractive settlement proposition for businesses.

This began with the renovation of the period buildings the site is home to and putting its original road network back in order, upon which the move was made to begin interconnecting with businesses and attracting and integrating start-ups. This saw the community gradually grow as it attracted not only big tech, but also start-ups, schools and designers.

Money was also spent on improving communication facilities and making the park more accessible, thus allowing its appeal and the innovations made there to gain wider acclaim. This improved exposure revamped its now long-gone image of a somewhat murky, derelict industrial estate into an acclaimed hotspot for sustainability, innovation and enterprise.

Pioneering Work

Site Director W. K. Raes rather poignantly summarised the site’s past, present and future in his 1993 50th anniversary address. “We needed some pioneering work to get here. What you find here is the result of creative enterprise, and the hard and persistent efforts of many. All this working on products and services, on improving and doing things differently: we’re going to keep on doing that! If it’s up to us, the Akzo Kleefse Waard shall remain what it has always been: a site with a future.”