Solvay has been adapting to an ever-changing World for more than a Century and a half. It had to reinvent itself many times, always building on a strong heritage of social responsibility, technical excellence and a family character.

The company was born in 1863 out of a technological breakthrough, the ammonia-soda process set up by Ernest Solvay and a small circle of relatives including his brother Alfred. 
After difficult years of technical uncertainties, Solvay embarked on a rapid international expansion, building plants in the whole industrialized world.

In 1900, 95% of the soda ash consumed in the World were produced using the Solvay process.
The Group survived both World Wars, thanks to its family shareholder base and jealously guarded manufacturing secrets. And by the early 1950s, Solvay diversified and resumed its global expansion. 

The recent years witnessed other radical transformations, from the divestment of the pharmaceutical pillar to the acquisition of Rhodia and the creation of a new Solvay.
 

We have always operated by imposing on our minds a duty of continuous progress.

Ernest Solvay 
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Virtual Exhibition on Ernest Solvay on Google Arts & Culture

Pioneering times

Solvay was created in 1863 as a start-up enterprise manufacturing sodium carbonate with a radically new industrial process. This was the dawn of the second industrial revolution, an era of a dogmatic belief in progress through science and industry. Electricity was just being invented, and new processes were expanding the applications of chemistry even before the advent of the oil age. Edison, Nobel, Bell, Marconi - and Ernest Solvay - were emblematic inventors-entrepreneurs of this period. After a few years of technical difficulties, the business rapidly grew out as one of the largest multinational companies and, as such encompassed diverse national cultures.

 

 

Wise entrepreneurs

Brothers Alfred and Ernest Solvay were just 23 and 25 years old respectively when they founded their company in 1863. Here the brothers (Alfred, 2nd and Ernest, 3rd from the right) are depicted alongside management colleagues visiting the company’s Wyhlen soda ash plant based in Germany, in the 1880s.

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Pioneering heavy Chemical Industry in the US

Solvay pioneered the heavy chemical industry in numerous countries, including the United States in 1881. The Syracuse (NY) plant, the first in the US to manufacture soda ash, was located in a town that would eventually be named after Solvay (Picture by Edouard Hannon).

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Patenting an invention...in two phases

Just a day before his 23rd birthday, Ernest Solvay patented a process producing soda ash with salt, ammonia and carbonic acid. This first patent was voided, as the chemical reaction had long been known in theory by chemists. Devastated yet still determined, Ernest filed a second patent in 1863 with the help of lawyer Eudore Pirmez, describing the succession of equipment and operations rather than the principle itself.

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One of the earliest multinationals

Solvay was one of the earliest companies to go multinational and take advantage of the extraordinary expansion of the world economy in the last quarter of the 19th century. As early as the 1880s, it had plants both wholly owned and through partnerships extending from Michigan to the Urals. In this picture taken by technical director Edouard Hannon, Alfred Solvay is seen on a steamboat, braving a five-day trip to the US.

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A step into the steppe

Solvay’s Russian adventure began when it concluded a partnership with Russian industrialist, Ivan Lubimoff in 1881. Two years later a plant was erected in Berezniki, near the Ural Mountains, from which it took more than a week by sleigh and boat through the harsh winter climate to reach Moscow.

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The Couillet plant in 1877

Solvay built its first industrial plant in Couillet, Belgium. Couillet was situated in the heart of Charleroi’s glass-making industrial district and thus an ideal location to produce soda ash. The region was also home to the Pirmez, the Nélis and the Lamberts, a tight group of early friends and supporters without whom the family business would never have seen the light of day.

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A story of multiple families

Solvay & Cie was launched in 1863 as a limited partnership company funded by family members and owners of local small-scale businesses. Shares were owned by Solvay siblings, as well as by financing partners from the Pirmez, Lambert, Nélis and Sabatier families. Until 1967, shares were never sold to outsiders but for a few rare exceptions. Today, descendants of these families still control a sizeable amount of shares, notably through the holding company Solvac.

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Consolidation of power

Solvay was at the forefront of the first industrial globalization that took place at the end of the 19th century. Thanks to its strong and precocious international network, the company contributed to the industrial development of the many countries in which it had settled –directly or through partnerships. A global leader in its field, Solvay was also recognized for its extensive welfare programs and support to academic science.

 

Taking good care of its employees

Supplemental health and protection initiatives formed a key part of Solvay’s social policy. Since 1878, medical centers and hospitals built near the plants provided free services to workers and their families for general medical needs, surgery, home nursing, maternity, dentistry, and so on. Solvay also covered the medication costs of qualified workers and paid half their salary during lost time due to sickness. Accident victims received reimbursement for damages. The first pension fund was created in 1879–1880.

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Cité scientifique in Parc Léopold, Brussels

Ernest Solvay called science his “fifth child”. Though pleurisy kept him out of university, after amassing fortune, Ernest devoted time and money to endow scientific learning. Several institutes he founded are depicted here from left to right: Physiology (1895), Business School (1903) and Sociology (1902), all part of a “Cité Scientifique” set up in Brussels at Parc Léopold, nearby today’s EU institutions.

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A passion for physics

Ernest Solvay cherished physics most. He funded in Brussels a series of Councils bringing together the era’s most brilliant physicists. The first one, held in 1911, gathered Einstein, Curie, Langevin, Nernst, Planck, Brillouin, Lorentz, Rutherford, Poincaré and others. A similar Council of Chemistry was held in 1922, and institutes have since been created to organize such meetings on a regular basis, until even today.

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Focus on science and education

Solvay’s philanthropy has always been focused primarily on science and education. For its 50th anniversary in 1913, the Group made large gifts to universities in Europe, the US and the Congo and founded an institute for workers’ education in Brussels. In its industrial sites worldwide, Solvay arranged and subsidized day care, primary schools (here at Turda, Romania), and summer camps for children. Solvay also granted scholarships to its most gifted workers.

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The Soda Ash and Electrolysis trees

Solvay frequently displayed this “soda ash tree” at industrial exhibitions. In the image, raw materials are depicted in the soil, while the trunk highlights the company’s main products, and the branches represent sub-products and derivatives. The many leaves show the multiple uses of soda ash. After 1900, a second tree grew alongside the main one, announcing the coming of electrolysis for producing caustic soda and chlorine in equal quantities.

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Undisputed leadership

At the turn of the twentieth century, Solvay was a single-product company leading a fast-growing industry. With its associated companies in Great-Britain (Brunner, Mond & Co), Germany (Deutsche Solvay Werke), Austria-Hungary (Oesterreichischer Verein), the US (Solvay Process Co) and Russia (Lubimoff Solvay & Cie), the Group owned 32 plants, employed 25,000 people and produced nearly two million tons of alkalis. As such, it was the most international and largest chemical group in the world in terms of workforce and output.

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Familial management 1913

As long as Solvay remained a partnership company (until 1967), management was almost exclusively composed by Solvay family members, with the notable exception of Prosper Hanrez (1880-1886) and Edouard Hannon (1907-1922), both technical directors who’d earned the right to join the management team due to their merits.  Pictured here (from left to right): Louis Solvay, Edgard Hulin, Armand Solvay, Ernest Solvay, Georges Querton and Edouard Hannon.

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Meanwhile, in the Rhone valley...

In 1857, the young chemist Prosper Monnet founded in Lyon one of the first French companies producing the aniline, used in dyeing. In 1895, the company became a public limited company under the new name of Société Chimique des Usines du Rhône (SCUR). Among SCUR's banner products were vanillin (1894), "Rodo” synthetic perfumes (1896), Aspirine du Rhône (1902), cellulose acetate (1902), and as soon as 1917, Rhodoïd, a cellulose-based plastic.  In 1902, SCUR launched the Rhodia trademark to designate the vanilla flavor along with some products derived from acetate.

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Times of doubts

The outbreak of the First World War marked the end of an era and the advent of a new World order. Multinationals suddenly had to cope with the rise of national antagonisms. The face of the chemical industry itself changed tremendously. Solvay had to adapt by defending its leadership through alliances and technical excellence.

 

Organizing the relief a starving population

During WWI, the Belgian population suffered due to food shortages and the outright ending of production in many sectors. A National Committee for Relief and Food (CNSA) was set up by politicians and industrialists in 1914. Ernest Solvay, who donated 1 million francs, became its president. This private organization even served as a “2nd Belgian government” during the war. Other Solvay managers also played a role, including Emmanuel Janssen and Louis Solvay.

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Surviving two World Wars

Solvay was literally caught up in World War I. Its headquarters were based in “neutral” Belgium, which was nevertheless occupied almost entirely by German troops. It owned plants in most belligerent countries. Worse: its foreign subsidiaries were directly confronting each other. During WWII, Solvay was anxious about the fate of its industrial sites in both Nazi-dominated Europe and the Allied zone. Ernest-John Solvay and his brother-in-law René Boël were respectively in charge of maintaining the company’s autonomy in both zones.

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Losing grip in America

During WWI, the United States displayed leadership in both politics and economics. For Solvay, however, the US posed great challenges. Solvay held interests in two companies: the Solvay Process Co and the Semet-Solvay Co, which merged with three other chemical firms in 1920 to form Allied Chemical & Dye Corp. As a consequence of this merger, Solvay’s influence in the US decreased tremendously. Another concern was the Stock Market Crash of 1929. Though Solvay itself was not too badly affected, the Group’s “Mutuelle Solvay” private investment bank lost millions and had to be restructured.

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Management team in Borth

1926 After the passing away of Ernest Solvay in 1922 at the age of 83, no natural leader of equivalent stature could be immediately identified. Group management therefore became even more of a collegial effort. Inside the Management Committee, each manager was personally responsible for a list of countries and functional activities. Pictured here: a visit to salt mines in Borth, Germany. From left, Louis Solvay (2nd); Emmanuel Janssen (5th); and Ernest-John Solvay (7th).

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Solvay Conference of Physics 1927

Perhaps the most celebrated Council of Physics is the Fifth Solvay International Conference on Electrons and Photons that took place in 1927, where the newly formulated theory of quantum physics took center stage. Leading figures Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr famously debated quantum mechanics at the conference, and of all the attendees, 17 of the 29 were or became Nobel Prize winners.

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Caught up in communist regimes

Twice in its history, Solvay suffered at the hands of communist regimes. First, in 1917, when the Bolshevik revolution resulted in the confiscation of Russian plants and mines. Second, in the wake of World War II, when 15 Solvay industrial sites were nationalized in Romania, Hungary, East-Germany, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and in Poland. Despite numerous attempts, Solvay was unable to obtain reparations in most cases.

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Caught in the maelstrom of European history

Under Hitler’s dictatorship, the Solvay’s subsidiaries were subjected to the system of Verwaltung (sequester). This deprived Brussels’ management from effectively supervising their plants. The powerful administrators who held the reins, however, showed loyalty to the company and enabled it to successfully resist takeover schemes instigated by Solvay’s main competitors in Germany and in Eastern Europe. Solvay’s Bernburg plant, here painted in 1938 by Karl Blossfeld has seen its fair share of history. It was founded under Bismarck; put in sequester by the Nazis; seized by the communists; partially dismantled by the Russians; recovered after the fall of the Berlin Wall; and revitalized to face globalization.

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Diversification and opening

During the “thirty glorious” years spanning between the immediate after-war and the mid-1970s, the World economy was in full swing.  Solvay diversified greatly and got closer to the final consumer. The private partnership transformed itself into a publicly quoted joint-stock company, though still largely controlled by its founding families.

 

Research is key

Diversification into new areas requires research! Solvay opened its research center in Neder-over-Heembeek (NOH) in 1953. Today, the NOH campus serves as the Group’s headquarters. Whereas in 1950 Solvay’s product portfolio was confined almost exclusively to soda ash, caustic soda, and inorganic chlorine derivatives, by 1967 nearly half of the company’s turnover was realized outside those domains in areas such as PVC, peroxides and plastics processing.

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Management heralds 100 years

By the time the company celebrated its 100th anniversary, still only family members led its management. The mood was buoyant, this time due to an ambitious program of diversification which was starting to bear fruit. From left: Paul Washer, Pierre Solvay, René Boël, Ernest-John Solvay, Henri Delwart, Jacques Solvay.

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Closer to the customer 

Up until the late 60s, Solvay served only industrial markets. By 1967, however, it began to expand into consumer products too. Marketing played a greater role. As shown by this outfit made from plastic fibres, Solvay was well and truly getting closer to its customer! Among many other things, the company also invented the plastic mineral water bottle, which had enormous success. To launch and develop its PVC activity, Solvay created the Solvic joint-venture with Imperial Chemical Industries, their long-time British partners.

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Peroxides, a second path to diversification

Beyond plastics, another area of diversification was peroxides. The Group obtained the licence for a production process owned by IG Farben as compensation for war damages in Germany, and then started researching the process on its own in 1951. Among many uses, hydrogen peroxide, a bleaching and disinfection agent is used in the cosmetics industry, as demonstrated by the “bottled blond” pictured here. Interox was the name of Solvay’s world leading joint-venture created in 1971 with the British company Laporte.

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Going public

In 1967, Solvay transitioned from being the discrete partnership it had been for more than a century into a high-profile public company. The move was critical in order to be able to finance new activities. The founding families, however, kept the majority of shares. Their predominance was further reinforced in 1983 with the creation of the Solvac holding, which is not open to institutional investors. Going public however began a new chapter in the Group’s history with non-family members now being nominated to the Executive Committee.

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Solvay returns to the US!

Solvay returned to the US as a serious industrial player in 1974 with the purchase of the high-density polyethylene (HDPE) activity of Celanese Corp, which included one of the largest production facilities of the country, in Deer Park, Texas. This strategic move was done under the leadership of Jacques Solvay. The subsidiary resulting from the acquisition was called Soltex Polymer Corporation, because the right to use the Solvay name in the US was still owned by Allied Chemical!

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Black gold rising

From coal to oil... the rise of the petrochemistry. Within just a few years, Solvay became the largest PVC producer in Europe. Doing so also increased its dependence on a raw material that it didn’t source directly: ethylene, from oil. Consequently, from that point onwards, Solvay’s financial results have been partially tied to oil prices.

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Meanwhile...big shifts in Rhone-Poulenc's perimeter

In 1928, SCUR had merged with Poulenc Frères, to give rise to the Rhône-Poulenc group. Very active in pharmaceuticals and fibers, the group diversified after World War II to become a major producer of synthetic fibers (nylon, polyester), penicillin, and silicones. During the 1960s and 1970s, a series of mergers and acquisitions propelled Rhône-Poulenc to the forefront of the French chemical industry. With a large number of divisions and businesses, Rhône-Poulenc soon had to reorder its structure, in particular by divesting most of its textiles, petrochemicals, and fertilizers in the 1970s and 1980s.

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Facing global challenges

As the 20th century was drawing to a close, challenges as opportunities became increasingly global. Economies and societies were notably transfigured by the consequences of the oil shocks, the end of the cold war, and the advent of the information age. Solvay responded to these changes by growing into life sciences, by increasing its presence into emerging markets and by refocusing its portfolio.

 

The biochemical revolution

After the oil crisis, Solvay clearly recognized a need to reduce its dependence on oil and transition into less cyclical activities. Life sciences was a promising field, spanning human and animal health, crop protection, enzymes and more. Solvay mainly built its life sciences activities on the back of acquired firms (Kali-Chemie, Salsbury, Duphar…). Progressively, a focus on human health took pride of place in the Group with many large investments done in the sector.

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Solvay back in the East!

The fall of the Berlin Wall held great significance for Solvay as a company. Solvay was able to recover its Bernburg plant rapidly. However, a gloomy economic context in reunified Europe hindered a more rapid expansion into Eastern Europe. After several years of considerable effort and the acquisition in 1996 of the Devnya soda ash plant in Bulgaria, Solvay was well and truly back in the East.

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Solvay turns to fast-growing regions

In the 1980s, Solvay was largely present in the Western World. Asia became a priority as from the 1990s, with Solvay initially focusing on Thailand, South Korea, and Japan. But that was just the beginning.  Negotiations started in India as well. And after much persistence, Solvay eventually established a fruitful business in China too.

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Executive Committee in 1995

Daniel Janssen was the last CEO to hail from the family of founders. When he retired in 1998 and became Chairman of the Board, Aloïs Michielsen became the first non-family CEO. He was then followed in 2006 by another company veteran, Christian Jourquin. In this picture of the Executive Committee in 1995, all members, except Daniel Janssen, are salaried managers.

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Divestment of polyolefins

By the start of the 21st century, Solvay was growing less tolerant of its cyclical businesses. Solvay’s polyolefins activity was particularly vulnerable. In August 2001 the Group concluded a deal with British Petroleum (BP), selling all of its polyolefins activities to the oil company, acquiring in its place BP’s promising engineering plastics activities. This highly advantageous deal for Solvay was an important step in the growth of its special polymers activities.

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Specialty polymers: toward value-added products

By 2000, Solvay began to focus on engineering plastics that yielded higher added value. Solvay’s attention was grabbed by the fluorinated chemicals and fluorinated polymers activities of Ausimont, a subsidiary of Montedison. After long, tough negotiations, in January 2003 the fluoric polymers of Solvay and Ausimont finally merged into a new company called Solvay Solexis, making Solvay a world leader in fluoric products.

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Meanwhile... the birth of Rhodia

The 1990s were marked by the big split between Rhône-Poulenc’s pharmaceutical business and its chemical, plastics and fibers activities. The first continued under the name of Rhône-Poulenc until its merger with Hoechst to form Aventis. The latter were united under the banner of Rhodia, which became independent in 1998. The challenge facing the new company was to reduce the debt inherited from the separation from Rhône-Poulenc, while strengthening its presence in specialty chemicals.

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Upgrade and specialization

The last decade witnessed an intense transformation of the Group’s profile. The divestment of the pharma business and the acquisition of Rhodia in 2010-2011 kicked-off a radical process of metamorphosis into a specialty chemicals and advanced materials company.

 

Major deals in a few years' time

Led by its CEO Christian Jourquin, in 2009 Solvay sold its pharmaceutical activities to Abbott and eventually used the proceeds to finance the friendly takeover of the French chemical company Rhodia. The acquisition would eventually add to Solvay’s global footprint 65 production sites in 19 different countries, sales subsidiaries in many more and five research centers across the globe. Rhodia brought strengths in the consumer goods and automotive markets, as well as leading positions in many new sectors. In 2012, Jean-Pierre Clamadieu, Rhodia’s CEO, succeeded Christian Jourquin as the head of Solvay. It marked the first time in the Group’s history that the company would be led by a CEO who had built his career at first outside the company.

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An impulse for "green" innovation

Between 2004 and 2016 Solvay has been a primary sponsor of the Solar Impulse project, led by Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg. The goal was to build an airplane that could fly around the world, day and night, using only solar energy. Solvay contributed extensively to the development through its research efforts, and its fluoropolymers and engineering plastics for batteries, photovoltaic cells, and lightweight constructive parts. (Copyright: Solar Impulse/Stéphane Gros.)

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Visual identity evolves

Up to 2013, the visual identity of Solvay evolved quite softly. Unveiled in January 2013, the Group's new logo is one of the most visible signs of its transformation. The iconic "S" and blue are clearly tied to Solvay’s history, while "Asking more from chemistry", the new signature, sums up its vision to be a model of sustainable chemistry through continuous improvement, operational excellence and accountability in the exercise of its activities.

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Reinventing itself … once again

Solvay underwent a breakthrough transformation between 2012 and 2017 making up to 50 acquisitions and divestments. Today, the Group is more sustainable, profitable, innovative, specialized, and global.

 

Becoming a major player in composites for a cleaner mobility

The acquisition of the American company Cytec in 2015 was the largest ever,  necessitating the first capital increase since the transformation of Solvay into a public company in 1967. Cytec previously was the chemical division of a widely diversified group called American Cyanamid, founded in 1907. It was spun off as an independent company in 1993 and specialized in composite technologies and mining chemicals. Thanks to this deal, Solvay further positioned itself as a leader in lightweighting materials for large customers in the aerospace and automotive industries.

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Diversity at the top

In 2018, Solvay announced the nomination of Ilham Kadri as its first female CEO. In an industry traditionally dominated by men, Solvay strongly believes that diversity of genders, cultures, but also of perspectives and experiences is a key asset for ensuring its permanent re-invention.