2013-08-29 21:22:04 -
This month, discover Solvay's resilience and ability to adapt when faced with
the major events that have marked history.
Chronicle # 8 - Negotiating the maze of History
Crises, wars and revolutions: crossing the twentieth century from one end to the
other proved no easy task for Solvay, caught up as a multinational in the major
events that changed the world. From these experiences the Group learned to be
agile and to transform challenges into opportunities.
The Great Depression of the late nineteenth century: a crisis turned to
The 1870s brought the first
economic crisis of global proportions. States
adopted protectionist postures, closing borders to exporters and raising customs
tariffs. Solvay was not affected. Why? Because the Group had gone international
just before the depression, taking advantage of the prevailing economic
liberalism and lack of administrative barriers. When trade barriers were
introduced, its subsidiaries were already in place and well established in their
The Solvay Pavilion at the Liège 1905 fair, by architect Victor Horta. By then,
Solvay was already a successful multinational.
1914-1918: first losses
World War I sounded the death-knell of all-powerful Europe and its empires. The
invasion of Belgium by German troops placed the Solvay headquarters in occupied
territory. In various countries, subsidiaries suddenly found themselves on
opposite sides in the conflict and subject to State intervention. At some
plants, part of the workforce was requisitioned. Everywhere the lack of raw
materials and difficulties in communicating from one country to another weakened
the Solvay empire. Once hostilities ceased, the Group surveyed the situation.
Apart from serious damage in a few places, the sites had survived the war
relatively unscathed. The worst consequence was the confiscation of the Russian
sites (Berezniki and Lysychansk) by the Bolsheviks after the October Revolution.
Plant at Château-Salins (Lorraine), bombed in 1917.
The interbellum: a group on the defensive
There now began a period of intense questioning for Solvay's leaders: how should
the Group adapt to the geopolitical reconfigurations and the end of the central
empires? How should a multinational react to the multitude of nationalisms? How
to confront the new American power and its huge groups? The economic depression
of 1929 put a stop to such questioning: Solvay fell back on its historical
activities and invested in a series of electrolysis plants. With the loss of
control of its U.S. subsidiary, the Group refocused its industrial activity in
continental Europe at what could not have been a worse time, with nationalism,
fascism, communism and anarchism gaining momentum and threatening democracy.
World War II: perils at home
The German expansion from 1938 onwards left governments and industrialists
disoriented. In Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland, Solvay & Cie's sites were
locked into the command economies of fascist Germany. As with the Spanish
subsidiaries in 1937, managers attempted through Belgian diplomatic channels to
press their rights to maintain control over their plants, but with little
success. After the German occupation of Belgium in 1940, René Boël, manager-in-
exile in the United States, activated his networks and sought to bring the
Group's activities into compliance with the rules introduced by the Allies. In
Britain, the company, considered as enemy property, was particularly threatened.
Boël mobilized his ICI partners to ensure that the subsidiary's capital would
not fall under the "Law on trade with the enemy", while seeking to gain legal
recognition of his position as manager of Solvay & Cie in the territories
outside German occupation. This did not prevent his looking to the future: in
partnership with ICI, Solvay & Cie started a plant in Brazil, then in a process
of vigorous growth. With these balancing acts and diplomacy, Solvay managed to
avoid the collapse of its structure. But the worst was still to come.
1945-1974: to the east, rien ne va plus
At the end of the war, the world divided into two blocks. Solvay, with a strong
presence east of the Iron Curtain, lost fifteen factories, almost without
compensation. The one exception was Bernburg, Solvay's largest plant before the
war, which it later recovered for a symbolic one Deutschmark in 1991, two years
after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Group turned its eyes westwards.
The soda ash plant in Bernburg was nationalized in 1951 and renamed "Sodawerke
Karl Marx ")
"Going along" with the building of Europe
From 1950 onward, the European integration process represented a real challenge
for Solvay & Cie. Paradoxically, the creation of a single market was far from
beneficial to the Group, which drew its strength from its presence in many
countries via plants adapted to local markets. It would need to reorganize
production and restructure its industrial equipment. This quickly became a
matter of life and death as, attracted by the opportunities offered by the
single market, new American petrochemical competitors moved into Europe,
building huge factories. To avoid being relegated to an 'also ran' position,
Solvay & Cie began a process of diversification, placing its money, successfully
as it turned out, on plastics.
Maintaining one's ranking: the new challenge of the modern world
The beginning of the twenty-first century was marked by the loss of influence of
"old Europe", with the rise of new players in all so-called
continents. As an experienced multinational Solvay was quick to grasp the
importance of supporting these high-growth regions, and especially to transform
itself in order to ensure its growth in a fast-moving world. It is on this path
that the Group operates today.
1914-18 Belgium saved from starvation
On 4 August 1914, Belgium, whose neutrality had been guaranteed by international
treaties, was invaded by German troops. The allied blockade threatened the
country with mass starvation. A group of industrialists and politicians created
the National Relief and Food Committee. Its chairman and main support was Ernest
Solvay. With the effective cooperation of Spain and the Netherlands, this
committee carried off one of the first large-scale humanitarian operations in
history. The food brought into the country, financed by public and private
funds, saved from famine and malnutrition the Belgian population and many
inhabitants in the occupied north of France.
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