Belgian Firm Is Leader in Billiard Ball Market

From Reuters

In the United States the game is pool, in Britain it's snooker, in France, le billard , and in Japan, yotsudama.

But whatever the game and wherever it's played, chances are pretty good that the balls were made in Belgium by Saluc, as the company is known.

It is not totally illogical that one small factory in a Belgian country village close to the French border has come to dominate the world market for billiard balls.

Belgium's Raymond Ceulemans, the country's leading player, has won more than 100 official championships, including about 30 world titles.

Snooker has begun to sweep the country thanks to televised games beamed from Britain, and the number of clubs has soared from about 50 to several hundred in just a few years.

But with 98% of its balls exported to clients in more than 60 countries, the foreign market is what counts for Saluc.

The factory, which turns out more than 30,000 balls a day in 800 varieties, is a far cry from the hushed atmosphere and dim lights of the snooker or billiard club.

The last 30 years has seen a revolution not only in sales, but also in methods, said Philippe Janssen, Saluc sales manager.

Traditionally, the balls were made of ivory. But uncertain supplies, and problems making sure they run straight and "true" whether in the muggy heat of Asia or in a Scandinavian chill, have ousted ivory in favor of synthetic resins.

A blaze of color--red, green, blue, purple, white, pink, orange and black--greets visitors as workers fill special molds with colored resin.

In the 1920s, Saluc had a thriving business producing chemicals used to treat leather in local tanneries.

But 30 years later, the arrival of plastics hit the industry hard and the firm had to find a new market.

Why billiard balls?

"It was a question of necessity. The billiard market was booming, and there were links between what we were producing and the resins used to make balls," Janssen said.

The first balls were sold in the early 1950s, and by 1958 Saluc had 5% of the world market. In 1986, Saluc said it had 80% of world sales.

Even with modern methods, there are still as many as 82 tasks to perform on each ball. Competition balls must be exact to three-hundredths of a millimeter.

To make the balls, a chemical mixture is pumped into molds, which are then baked in ovens. Then the balls are smoothed, checked, balanced and polished before being boxed for export.

The company is secretive about its exact chemical mixture. But the change has revolutionized production from the days when ivory balls were hand-turned on lathes at a rate of just 20 or 30 an hour.

Saluc has begun to branch out into new markets, such as rollers for factory conveyor belts.

But the balls remain Saluc's speciality.

"We're No. 1 in the world when it comes to perfect spheres," Janssen said.

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