PFIZER, which earned worldwide fame for discovering the Viagra anti-impotence drug, has been a key part of Kent’s business scene for more than half a century.
It is a flagship name that has had a major impact on the East Kent economy and been used to promote the county as a great place for Blue Chip companies.
With 2,400 people thrown onto the dole and scores of businesses losing valuable Pfizer business, this is a single blow to the heart of the Kent economy that is unparalleled in recent times. Yet warning bells have been ringing for some time.
After years of expansion, the company began cutting jobs worldwide, with Sandwich one of several plants to be hit. The New York-based business halted manufacturing with the loss of hundreds of jobs.
Yet it was manufacturing that was the Sandwich plant’s key activity for more than 50 years.
It shows just how vulnerable local economies are to global decisions made in remote boardrooms with no loyalty to a particular site or region.
The American firm had won early success for mass-production penicillin but the discovery of an anti-biotic in 1949 transformed Pfizer into an international pharmaceutical company.
Due to huge demand, this drug called Terramycint was imported into the UK from the States but this involved numerous delays.
The solution was to manufacture the drug and in 1952 Folkestone was chosen as the most suitable location for a new compounding operation.
However, the British Government restricted sales unless the drug was fully manufactured in Britain. So Pfizer decided to create a new manufacturing plant, and homed in on a derelict 80-acre site close to the River Stour. Government grants were on offer and so the Sandwich operation began in 1954.
Huge expansion followed, with handsome new buildings housing some of the finest research and development laboratories in the world. Staff numbers rose rapidly to more than 5,000. Since 1998, the company has invested almost a billion pounds in the Sandwich plant, and countless millions of pounds before that.
It was a story of continuous success and discovery, tempered by occasional public protest over its animal testing programme.
Pfizer has been an economic powerhouse for East Kent, prospering at a time when the rest of the area was struggling. It is fair to say that the economic decline of Thanet and the surrounding area would have been far more serious but for Pfizer’s presence.
But such splendid isolation came at a price. Pfizer struggled to attract the best scientists to a place perceived as being too far from the mainstream. Pfizer complained about transport links and shortage of good quality housing for their senior staff. But the company came up with a stream of good discoveries, notably Viagra, and manufactured a wide range of successful products.
Gradually, its influence paid dividends and a new road was built. But the recruitment challenge remained and dozens of marketing staff were transferred to Surrey.
As the world-wide pharmaceutical industry became more competitive, Pfizer came under mounting pressure. There have been regular job losses over the past few years as Pfizer consolidated.
A few years ago, Its New York headquarters recently announced plans to axe 10,000 jobs at its plants worldwide. The company has been hit by fierce competition and downward price pressure after drugs came out their restricted licensing period, While rumours of closure have been around for sometime, no one really thought the unthinkable would ever happen.
Now it has. Without Pfizer dominating the Sandwich skyline and the East Kent economy like a colossus, the future for the area looks pretty grim.