Solvay. History of a multinational family firm

Kenneth Bertrams, Nicolas Coupain, and Ernst Homburg

Book-Cover-History.gifErnest Solvay, philanthropist and organizer of the world-famous Solvay conferences on physics, discovered a profitable way of making soda ash in 1861. Together with a handful of associates, he laid the foundations of the Solvay company, which successfully branched out to other chemicals, plastics, and pharmaceuticals. Since its emergence in 1863, Solvay has maintained its world leadership in the production of soda ash. This is the first scholarly book on the history of the Solvay company, which was one of the earliest chemical multinationals and today is among the world’s twenty-largest chemical companies. It is also one of the largest companies in the field to preserve its family character. The authors analyze the company’s 150-year history (1863–2013) from economic, political, and social perspectives, showing the enormous impact geopolitical events had on the company and the recent consequences of global competition.

Reviews

This is perhaps the most important European corporate history to be published this century. We knew about Ernest Solvay the philanthropist and the role of his company in the complex of European cartels from other histories, but for the first time we now have a highly professional account from the inside of a company that was the earliest and largest European chemical multinational, yet that remained a successful and well-managed family partnership until its public flotation on the Brussels stock exchange in 1967 and further global expansion and diversification as a public joint stock company." - Professor Leslie Hannah, University of Tokyo.

"Solvay: History of a Multinational Family Firm is a thoroughly researched history of a leading chemical company that deserves to be better known outside Belgium. One of its strengths is the way that all the various facets of Solvay's business (structure, strategy, marketing, technology) are constantly addressed throughout the volume. This is an excellent history of Solvay that will be of great interest to both business historians and historians of chemistry." - Peter Morris, Science Museum, London.

"This scholarly book is the commanding study of one of the largest and oldest chemical enterprises in the world. The well-known authors explain to us Solvay's longevity, challenges, stress, and success. All major aspects of a dynamic enterprise, such as management, technological change, finances, competition, role of the founding family, and even touching sponsorship, are convincingly addressed. While the previous Solvay book lasted for 50 years, this one - based on its excellent quality - will outlive it! - Harm G. Schröter, Professor of Economic History, University of Bergen, Norway, and President of European Business History Association.

"With the publication of this book, an extraordinary instance of scholarly neglect has finally been put right, and in grand style. Based on a vast array of primary evidence, the authors provide a full and multifaceted account of the Solvay company, one of the most long-lived and successful chemical firms in history. The evolving business strategies of this family multinational, its technological development, and its social initiatives are all examined closely, as are the personalities and family dynamics that have shaped its long history." - Raymond G. Stokes, University of Glasgow.

Table of contents

Part I. The Pioneering Years (1863–1914): The Quest for a Leadership and the First Stages of the Internationalization (Nicolas Coupain)
  1. First steps: when vision and reality meet
  2. A multinational pioneer
  3. Reaching a dominant position
  4. Labor organization, social policy, and societal vision
  5. The consolidation of power
  6. Conclusion of Part I

Part II. The Years of Crisis (1914–50): The Making and Unmaking of International Alliances (Kenneth Bertrams)
  1. The multiple fronts of World War One
  2. From ashes, 1918–22
  3. The making of international alliances
  4. Family and finance through the crisis
  5. The electrolytic industry
  6. Facing war again
  7. Solvay's second post-war
  8. Conclusion of Part II

Part III. The Era of Diversification and Globalization(1950–2012) (Ernst Homburg)
  1. Growth through diversification: the successful entry into plastics and peroxides
  2. Enlarging scale and scope: backward and forward integration in the 1960s and 1970s
  3. Solvay goes public: financial and organizational limits of a family firm
  4. The long and winding road to Deer Park: Solvay's return to the United States
  5. From bulk to brains: Solvay's entry into pharmacy and the life sciences
  6. Solvay in the age of globalization
  7. Towards sustainable product-leadership
  8. Chemical and plastics of the future: major turning points at the start of a new century
  9. Conclusion of Part III