With construction materials giant Holcim Ltd., based outside Geneva, turning 100 years old this year, the company has detailed its history on its website (www.holcim.com), as well as the events that will occur around the world in connection with its Centennial celebrations. In addition, the company has commissioned a journalist to write a 10-chapter company chronicle, which tracks how a single cement factory in a small Swiss town grew into a global group. Highlights of the decade-by-decade historical record include:
With the onset of its engineering activities in France in 1922, “Holderbank” ushered in a decade of expansion abroad. Ernst Schmidheiny began to invest with no qualms about taking on minority interests if they made strategic and economic sense. Along with stakes in Belgium and the Netherlands, as well as in Germany and Lebanon, Schmidheiny opened a plant in Tourah in Egypt in 1929.
After Schmidheiny’s untimely death, his two sons Ernst Jr. and Max took over responsibility for Holderbank. By mutual agreement and in close cooperation, the two split their inheritance. Ernst Jr. took over the reins at Holderbank, while Max concentrated on the other business lines his father had built up. With this division, the brothers implemented a principle to which they would remain true until the early 1970s. Thanks to the geographical diversification begun by their father, Holderbank was also able to survive the chaos of World War II.
Hans Gygi, son of the firm’s founder Adolf Gygi, became the driving force behind the expansion of Holderbank after World War II. He founded the Technische Stelle Holderbank and began planning for a new plant in Quebec, Canada. This paved the way for a far-flung expansion in North and Latin America. In Switzerland, the housing boom after 1950 stimulated growth to such an extent that soon all sectors of the economy were booming.
An important cause of the economic boom in Europe was the American aid program known as the Marshall Plan. From 1948 to 1952, the United States supported Western European countries with $12.4 billion worth of aid. In 1958, the company listed itself on the stock exchange in order to raise capital for expansion. The construction of large hydroelectric power plants in Switzerland further fueled developments, so that the nationalization of the Holderbank plants in Egypt caused no lasting damage to the company.
In the 1960s, Brazil and Mexico became major contributors to the company’s portfolio. At the same time, the North American market became increasingly important. After years of discussion, the Schmidheiny brothers took the step in the early summer of 1970 of consolidating their cement activities. The merger of Holderbank and the Schweizerischen Cement-Industrie-Gesellschaft resulted in a company with total revenues of 800 million Swiss francs. From then on, Holderbank could hold its own with largest players in the industry.
The oil shock of 1973 ushered in a difficult phase in the history of Holderbank. Demand, especially in the construction sector, collapsed in many markets. However, thanks to good conditions in markets in Lebanon and South Africa, the company was able to withstand the crisis practically unscathed, and could increase revenues and profits again up from 1976. This made possible a first move into Asia as well accelerated expansion in Latin America and the very promising Spanish market.
In the 1980s, Holderbank began to look for new markets. As a result, both Asia and Eastern Europe came into focus. At the same, the expansion into Spain showed positive effects. The country was experiencing a construction boom in connection with the Universal Exposition in Seville scheduled for 1992 and the Olympic games in Barcelona scheduled for the same year. Thomas Schmidheiny became the third generation of the family to take over the company. Under his leadership, Holderbank became the world’s largest cement company in 1986.
During the 1990s, Holderbank entered new markets and consolidated its position in existing ones. Thanks to the booming American building sector, the company was able to speed up expansion in Eastern Europe. In this decade alone, stakes in companies in Romania, Bulgaria and Russia were added. The company also succeeded in returning to Egypt, some 30 years after Nasser had nationalized the Schmidheiny’s Egyptian plants. In the spring of 2001, the annual general meeting decided to do business worldwide under the name of Holcim.
The new millennium began with a historic change from a family-run business to an open, public company. The introduction of a unified registered share and modern corporate governance structures made it easier to access international capital markets and so supported the growth of the company. Asia became the engine both of the world economy and Holcim. It was one of the first globally active construction materials companies to achieve the goal of having more than 50 percent of its revenues generated in emerging markets.
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