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.
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.
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! To launch and develop its PVC activity, Solvay created the Solvic joint-venture with Imperial Chemical Industries, their long-time British partners.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.