Compagnie de Saint-Gobain - Company Profile, Information, Business Description, History, Background Information on Compagnie de Saint-Gobain

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History of Compagnie de Saint-Gobain

Founded in 1665 as the royal glassmakers to Louis XIV, Compagnie de Saint-Gobain is a multinational group of over 1,000 companies in 46 countries worldwide. Saint-Gobain operates as one of the top 100 industrial corporations in the world, supplying the glass for 50 percent of all cars in Europe, manufacturing 30 billion bottles, flasks, and jars each year, and supplying insulation for one-fifth of all homes in the United States. The company's subsidiaries fall into three main divisions: housing, glass, and high performance materials. Its Housing division, responsible for 51 percent of sales in 2003, manufactures and supplies a variety of building materials, including roofing, mortars, wall facings, and pipe. The Glass unit, accounting for 38 percent of sales, provides containers, flat glass, insulation, and reinforcements. The firm's High Performance Materials segment includes its ceramics, plastics, and abrasives businesses. From its original base of flat glass manufacture in the 17th century using traditional methods, the company rapidly began to organize production on an industrial basis, establishing a strong European presence during the 19th century. It diversified into the chemical sector as well as other glass-based products. It has operated in Brazil since the 1930s and in the United States since 1974. Following an attempted takeover bid by a much smaller French glass concern in 1969, Saint-Gobain merged with Pont-á-Mousson--founded in 1854--which makes products for the construction industry and is famous for its cast-iron pipes. The merger made Saint-Gobain the world's leading manufacturer of ductile cast-iron piping for water supply systems.

Early History

Saint-Gobain is the only survivor of a group of private manufacturers founded in 1665 as part of the economic revival of France planned by Jean Baptiste Colbert, chief minister of Louis XIV. The letters patent which created the Compagnie des Glaces granted the company a monopoly on production and sale of glass in France. The original name of the company was Dunoyer, after the individual to whom these privileges were accorded. A group of Venetian glass-workers was persuaded to come to Paris, and production began in the Faubourg Saint-Antoine. However, disputes and difficulties arose with the Venetian authorities and workers, and they returned to Venice after two years. The company then formed an association with Richard Lucas de Nehou, proprietor of a glassworks at Tourlaville, near Cherbourg. Glass produced there was sent to Paris for the finishing process of grinding and polishing. Around 1680, Richard's nephew Louis was responsible for an invention that transformed the manufacture of glass and remained in use until 1920; glass could now be rolled out on a flat surface, allowing much larger sheets to be produced. After Colbert's death in 1683, his successor, whose name was Louvois, allowed the establishment of rival companies and restricted the original company to the production of blown glass. This led to the establishment in 1692 of a new factory at the village of Saint-Gobain, which was located nearer Paris and was designed for the new process.

Following the death of Louvois, the newly created companies were united with Dunoyer under the name of Plastrier, but problems continued and by 1702 Plastrier was declared bankrupt. Rescue came in the surprising form of the Geneva bank of Antoine Saladin. After complex negotiations, Saladin purchased the company, now to be called Dagincourt. The influence of the Swiss bank was to be felt throughout the 18th century.

The company now possessed a more entrepreneurial spirit and was able to exploit the new technique of rolled glass, benefiting from 18th-century prosperity and the numerous new uses for glass, especially mirrors. Beginning in 1740, technical expertise was sought to supplement the aristocratic element always prevalent in the company. Various rationalizations and reforms took place from 1755 to 1760 in response to the expansion of the market.

The company ceased glassblowing in 1763, and the ovens were improved. At the village of Saint-Gobain itself, a separate workers' enclave was established in 1775, partly as a solution to rivalry between the workers and other villagers.

The French Revolution of 1789 and its aftermath caused serious disruption at the company, and it took 40 years to restore sales to the level of the best years of the Ancien Régime. In 1806, the first attempts at diversification took place, with the implementation of the Leblanc process for producing soda ash, an important ingredient in glass and later used in many other industrial materials. This activity was transferred to new works at Chauny in 1822. The Tourlaville glass works closed in 1824, and production was concentrated at Saint-Gobain. In 1830, the company was incorporated as a société anonyme. The revolution had ended its monopoly, and there was a threat of competition from English glassworks--Ravenhead had been started by ex-Saint-Gobain workers--and several new French glass factories established during the 1820s, notably Saint-Quirin. The distribution of shares in the new company still reflected an aristocratic bias not suited to the world of 19th-century industry. Nevertheless, rationalization was taking place during this period, led by directors recruited from among technical university graduates. The process of mechanization had begun at the turn of the century.

With the boom in public building, the middle of the 19th century was a turning point for Saint-Gobain, heralding a golden age under the long presidency of the Duc de Broglie from 1866 to 1901.

Foreign ventures began with the lease of a factory at Stolberg in Germany in 1857, and in the following year a merger with its principal French rival Saint-Quirin gave Saint-Gobain a second presence in Germany--the glassworks built in 1853 at Mannheim, which was also to be the site of a French workers' city. Two other younger French rivals, Commentry and Prémontré, had been acquired jointly before the merger. These moves were prompted by the growing threat of competition from Belgium, as well as the expanding English glassworks. Broglie's predecessor as president, Antoine-Pierre Hély D'Oissel, recruited Hector Biver, an Englishman who had also worked in Belgium. Following its 1858 merger, the company became the Société Anonyme de la Manufactures des Glaces et Produits Chimiques de Saint-Gobain, Chauny et Cirey. On the chemical side, the company benefited from the presence of the famous chemist Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac, who had been president from 1844 to 1850 and who perfected his method of sulfuric acid production at Chauny. Considerable effort was devoted to improving the social and educational conditions of the workers, with the provision of schools, chapels, orphanages, savings and pension schemes, and even philharmonic and shooting societies. The image of aristocratic incompetence was largely dispelled during the second half of the 19th century.

Entering the Modern Era

After 200 years, a fundamental shift occurred as a result of the merger with the firm of Perret-Olivier in 1874. The company consequently comprised nine chemical works compared with eleven, including three overseas, for glass: the turnover was almost equal in both sectors. Continuing strong Belgian and U.K. competition in the glass industry was now joined by market entrants from the United States and Germany, reducing Saint-Gobain's share of an expanding industry. Pittsburgh Plate Glass, founded in 1883, attained the size of Saint-Gobain in only six years. The company responded by improving production methods and constructing further production sites in Europe: at Pisa, Italy, in 1889, and at Franiére, Belgium, between 1898 and 1900. Subsidiaries were acquired in Holland, Spain, and Germany. Turnover increased from FRF 18 million in 1890 to FRF 47 million in 1913. Saint-Gobain was now Europe's leading glass producer, with 26.8 percent of the market, followed by Belgium with 23.3 percent and Pilkington with 22 percent. Engineers played a growing role in a centralized administration in this period, but provisions continued to be made for the workers: at Pisa there was a children's home, dispensary, and school, and training in housework was provided.

The early 1900s also saw the introduction of highly significant technical developments in glassmaking, including the Bicheroux and Fourcault processes, which allowed continuous sheets to be produced. A joint venture undertaken with Pilkington to exploit the American Window Glass process, although not a technical success, helped in the forging of a commercial treaty between the glassmakers of Belgium, France, and the United Kingdom which lasted until World War II. The end of the 19th century also saw a radical change in the chemical division, where new processes resulted in the conversion of plants to superphosphate fertilizer production, for which Saint-Gobain was to remain famous in France until the abandonment of all its chemical interests in 1970.

The presence of French aristocrats and Genevan families still exerted considerable influence on the company, but with the quotation on the French Bourse in 1907 came greater dispersion of capital. From 1893, a new administrator, the archeologist and diplomat Melchior de Vogue, accelerated reform, giving more power to the divisions and creating the new posts of secretary-general and inspector of finances. He was president from 1901 to 1916. New headquarters were constructed in Paris between 1899 and 1902. With the support of shareholders, moves were made toward a more open management, but capital ventures continued to be financed on an internal basis.

At the beginning of the 20th century, key factors in the company's development were the growth of U.S. competition, further technical developments in glassmaking, and extensions of the way glass was used. In addition to new types of continuous processes and improved furnaces, there were innovations in grinding and polishing techniques and, perhaps most significant, the discovery of tempering to produce security glass and allow its shaping. This discovery opened the way for expansion into the automobile market as well as the structural and artistic markets. Security glass was developed and patented by Saint-Gobain, and manufacturing on a production line for Citroën began in 1929. A new factory had been opened in 1920 at Chantereine to exploit the new processes.

International relations were important in the late 1920s; various accords led to stabilization of the industry between manufacturers in the United States, the United Kingdom, and France. Saint-Gobain chose the Pittsburgh process for window glass as technically superior to that of its competitors. Surprisingly, glass bottles and flagons were still being manufactured at this time by the traditional glassblowing method, usually by small family enterprises scattered throughout France, Spain, and Italy. Saint-Gobain gradually absorbed these firms, as the increasing pace of mechanization rendered them uncompetitive. The 1930s witnessed perhaps the most important strategic move in the recent history of the company: diversification into glass fiber. Known by 18th-century English nobles, whose wigs had to be fireproof because of candles, glass fiber was also said to have been used in the Empress Josephine's coronation dress. Saint-Gobain, convinced by its U.S. contacts of the potential market for this product, obtained the necessary licenses, formed a new company, Isover, and acquired Balzaretti-Modigliani in Italy. However, production did not begin on an industrial scale until after World War II. Considerable research into improvements followed, which led to the intervention of the TEL and SUPERTEL processes for insulating materials, licensed by Saint-Gobain throughout the world.

Meanwhile the chemical side of the business had continued to decline, partly because of unsuccessful diversifications in this area. Of various diversifications attempted, including petroleum refining, one proved to be a long-term success: cellulose production. This began in 1920 and was the only process surviving from this period. An association with Papeteries Navarre in 1924 led to the formation of Cellulose du Pin and construction of a works at Facture in the Landes in 1928. It was planned at first to produce fibers for paper-based artificial textiles, but their decline after the war led to a switch to Kraft paper and bags.

The rest of the chemical side continued to be dangerously exposed. Saint-Gobain had refused offers from Solvay for a merger in 1927 and 1928 which would have created a Franco-Belgian group on a par with ICI or I.G. Farben. Another proposal, from Kuhlmann for a French chemical union, was also turned down. These negative responses may have sprung from the desire by management to cling to the old regime. Management reforms in the 1920s and 1930s had been only tentative, and it was not until the presidency of Pierre Hély D'Oissel from 1936 to 1953 that fundamental changes in management and structure were initiated, heralding the new models of management of the 1950s and 1960s.

Postwar Changes

The period from 1950 which led up to the merger of the two very dissimilar firms of Saint-Gobain and Pont-á-Mousson in 1970 was characterized by the growing power of the state in the French economy, which began during World War II under the Vichy regime. Senior officials of government were closely involved in the management of a planned economy and saw much of French industry as archaic and fragmented. The glass industry continued to flourish, and Saint-Gobain acquired a stake in its famous Belgian rival, Glaceries de Saint-Roch. Overseas expansion in glass fiber was dramatic, and the development of a presence in Brazil beginning in 1960 supplemented solid bases in Belgium, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, and Spain. The TEL process was proving successful in the United States and led to the acquisition of interests in the CertainTeed Corporation and the conversion of three old factories, which gave the company 10 percent to 15 percent of the U.S. market. However, another U.S. venture went wrong. A new subsidiary, American Saint-Gobain, founded in 1959, having already acquired four glassworks, then designed a new one in Greenland, Tennessee, intended to exploit the latest techniques in grinding and polishing. Disastrously, this factory did not open until 1962, after the invention of float glass by Pilkington. This revolutionary technique obviated the need for lengthy finishing processes. To compound the problem, the United States reacted strongly to the French invasion by an increase in tariffs of 30 percent.

Although the invention of float glass effectively killed off American Saint-Gobain, the parent company did not take the new process seriously until 1965, when it had to be acquired on much less favorable terms than were available just after the invention was introduced in the 1950s. Saint-Gobain, however, made up for lost time by rapidly modernizing all of its factories, starting with those overseas, thus helping amortize the old installations.

The 1960s also witnessed unsatisfactory alliances during the period when the company was making its last attempts to revive its chemical operations, notably through the creation of Péchiney-Saint-Gobain to develop organic chemicals, in particular the new plastics materials. Due to the instability of this sector, a government commission recommended a fundamental regrouping. However, before these recommendations could be acted upon, Rhöne-Poulenc preempted them by acquiring Péchiney-Saint-Gobain. Péchiney itself did not want the chemical interests, and Saint-Gobain could not afford to buy them.

Merger Negotiations in the 1960s

During this period the company raised capital to fund various ill-fated ventures. The increasing deficit caused further recourse to the banks, much against the Saint-Gobain tradition. At the end of 1968 came a major turning point: the dramatic offensive by Boussois Souchon Neuvesel (BSN) with a public offer for exchange to acquire 30 percent of Saint-Gobain, following tentative negotiations, which Saint-Gobain had rebuffed. BSN, a small but ambitious glass producer with an annual turnover of just under FRF 600 million, had set its sights on a company with consolidated funds of more than FRF 5 billion. BSN had chosen the moment when Saint-Gobain was suffering from the effects of the chemical restructuring as well as internal management struggles; these difficulties were reflected in the low price of the shares at the time. The offensive was a technical failure, securing only 7 percent of Saint-Gobain's capital, one million shares out of the minimum 3.4 million required. A vigorous rescue bid had to be mounted by a consortium of banks led by the Compagnie de Suez, and 40 percent of the shares changed hands during the battle. This shift left the company badly shaken and with diminished funds. As a direct consequence of this affair, the bankers took the initiative in arranging the merger with Pont-á-Mousson, which they saw as a means of securing Saint-Gobain against further attacks of this nature. Arnaud de Vogué, president since 1952, was initially reluctant but eventually recognized the end of the grand liberal regime of Saint-Gobain and the beginning of a new era.

One-third the size of Saint-Gobain, Pont-á-Mousson, founded in the 1850s, had begun to detach itself from its coal and metallurgical interests during the 1960s. Originally founded by local coal merchants in the Lorraine after the discovery of new iron-ore deposits, the little town of Pont-á-Mousson between Metz and Nancy was chosen as the site of the first blast furnace in 1860. The company began to pursue a strategy of vertical integration, with the control of mines, ironworks, and end products, a policy continued right up until the 1960s. In 1866, it made the key decision to specialize in the production of cast-iron pipes. The invention in Brazil in 1915 of an improved technique of casting pipes using centrifugal force led to the company's establishing production in that country in 1937. After World War II, a new importance was given to cast iron by the ductile iron process discovered by researchers at International Nickel in Canada during the 1940s. Pont-á-Mousson quickly obtained a license from a U.K. subsidiary of International Nickel and began production in 1950. Even so, the old type of cast-iron pipe remained in production until the end of the 1960s.

In contrast to Saint-Gobain, the dominant personalities in the history of Pont-á-Mousson were engineers, notably Camille Cavallier, sole administrator from 1900 to 1917 and president from 1917 to 1926. In 1970, following the merger, a provisional organizational structure was adopted based on the Pont-á-Mousson model, and it was Pont-á-Mousson's director, Roger Martin, who succeeded Arnaud de Vogué as the head of the new group. A gradual process of rationalization then took place involving decentralization, the establishment of a management structure, and the creation of product-based departments. In 1978, following a convention of all 41 directors, more fundamental reorganization of the new group led to the replacement of the six market departments by ten production-oriented branches. The 1970s also witnessed the jettisoning of the remaining chemical and petroleum investments, as well as the iron and steel interests inherited with Pont-á-Mousson. A brief flirtation with the products for nuclear reactors in 1972 was abandoned for political reasons. In glass fiber, the U.S. presence was reinforced by control of CertainTeed, and in France a new factory for insulation products was built at Orange. The energy crisis helped here: between 1973 and 1975, Saint-Gobain doubled its European production of glass fiber. Significant investments were also made in float glass, with Saint-Gobain building ten out of the 17 new plants constructed in Europe during 1976.

The new strength of the combined companies was illustrated by their ability to weather the crises of this period, including heavy losses in brassware and machinery during 1977 and 1978, as well as a sudden downturn in the insulation market in 1981, resulting in massive overproduction.

The 1980s-90s

After the 1978 reorganization, a search for further diversification led to the decision to enter the information technology sector. A joint subsidiary, Eurotechnique, was set up with National Semiconductor to produce electronic components, a partnership established with Cii-HB, and 30 percent of the capital of Olivetti acquired. However, before this venture could get off the ground, Saint-Gobain was nationalized by the new government of 1981 and forced to liquidate these holdings between 1982 and 1983. Yet Saint-Gobain was the only nationalized company to retain its top management, which continued to pursue its vigorous investment strategy and maintain a high level of industrial activity. The result was increased debt countered by such austerity measures as plant rationalization. The group had to be slimmed down further with approaching reprivatization in 1986. The effect of these policies was spectacular; global profits increased by a factor of seven in six years.

The company made several important acquisitions in the early 1990s. In 1990, Saint-Gobain acquired the U.S. company Norton, which was the world's leader in abrasives. The company paid $1.9 billion for Norton, one of the biggest French takeovers of an American company. The deal with Saint-Gobain rescued Norton from a hostile takeover by a British conglomerate, and Norton was a valuable asset. Norton was the only world producer of all three leading kinds of industrial abrasives--grinding wheels for machining metals, coated abrasives for polishing wood and glass, and "super-abrasives" with a diamond or boron nitride base. Norton had a strong reputation for quality, and its purchase gave Saint-Gobain a firm presence in the North American market. Saint-Gobain also acquired two German glassmakers in 1991, GIAG and Oberland. By 1992, Saint-Gobain had become the world's leading manufacturer of glass.

However, sales began to slump by 1992, and net income fell precipitously. Despite sales of over FRF 70 billion each year from 1991 through 1993, the company was beset by a downturn in the industrial cycle that it could do little to control. Demand for its products was low across Europe, and the company's activities in Asia were not vigorous enough to offset the lull in its home economy. In 1993, Saint-Gobain's profits plunged 45 percent. The company struggled to rein in costs and reduce its debt. The next year, Saint-Gobain took a major step to strengthen its core business by selling off its paper, pulp and packaging unit. The company raised FRF 5.63 billion ($1.07 billion) by selling its paper subsidiary La Cellulose du Pin to an Irish company, Jefferson Smurfit Group plc. Saint-Gobain had been involved in the paper industry for 70 years, but the company's chairman, Jean-Louis Beffa, called La Cellulose du Pin "too small and too French" to be a global player like the rest of Saint-Gobain's divisions. The loss of the paper business was expected to cut Saint-Gobain's sales by 10 percent, but the injection of cash was badly needed.

The next year, the recession in Europe seemed to be ending. Sales volume rose, although prices were still slack. Saint-Gobain did very well in North America in 1994, which improved the company's overall performance, and Saint-Gobain announced that it was ready to resume acquisitions now that sales and profits were back to manageable levels. In June 1995, the company announced a complex deal with two companies that would effectively make Saint-Gobain the largest glass-packaging manufacturer in the world. Saint-Gobain spent $1 billion for management control of a joint venture with Ball Corp., an American manufacturer. The joint venture bought up Ball Glass Container Corporation and another U.S. glass container manufacturer, Foster Forbes, giving Saint-Gobain control of 22 U.S. plants. The deal put Saint-Gobain second only to Owens-Illinois in the U.S. glass-packaging market. Saint-Gobain was already the leader in the European glass-packaging market, and it was important to the company to expand into the North American market. The deal with Ball Corporation seemed indicative of the company's future plans--to increase Saint-Gobain's presence in markets around the world.

Late 1990s and Beyond

Expansion played a significant role in Saint-Gobain's strategy in the years leading up to the 21st century. In fact, Saint-Gobain's feverish acquisition pace continued over the next several years. In 1996, the company acquired Poliet SA, a French specialty distribution firm. Ceramic companies from Germany and France were added to its holdings in 1997 along with an abrasives manufacturer based in the United Kingdom. Saint-Gobain strengthened its U.S. presence in 1998 by purchasing Bird Corp., a roofing materials manufacturer, and CALMAR, a supplier of plastic pump sprayers. The company announced its $620 million deal to buy Furon, a U.S. engineered products concern, the following year.

Growth continued in 2000 with the addition of U.K.-based Meyer International, Germany's Raab Karcher, and U.S. polymers firm Chemfab. In 2002, it purchased the remaining 25 percent of subsidiary Lapeyre SA that it didn't already own. While the company continued to make key acquisitions, it faced challenges due to slowing global economies. At the same time, it announced that it would have to book a $49.4 million charge to cover asbestos litigation risks in the United States. Saint-Gobain's financial performance for 2002 remained steady; however, the revelation that it could be subjected to years of expensive lawsuits sent its shares plummeting by 30 percent the day the company announced the charge in July. By March of the following year, it faced 114,000 claims.

For a short while, Saint-Gobain slowed its acquisition pace as a result of potential asbestos-related problems. By 2004, its financial results were positive as it secured a small increase in sales and operating income. Management was optimistic that the company would be able to resume its growth strategy. Early that year it acquired Dahl International AB, a Scandinavian distributor of heating and plumbing supplies, for $450.5 million.

Overall, Saint-Gobain continued to focus on its core businesses in three main business groups--Glass, Housing, and High Performance Materials. It looked for ways to strengthen its technology and marketing skills of each division and stepped up its distribution efforts. The company continued to plan for international expansion through an aggressive acquisition policy. As one of the oldest companies in the world, Saint-Gobain's involvement in global industries was far-reaching. By the early 2000s, it had supplied over 80 capitals and 1,000 major cities with water supply ducts, had provided the glass for the Louvre pyramid, and manufactured the crystals used in airport security detectors. While the threat of costly asbestos litigation remained a nagging concern, Saint-Gobain appeared poised to continue as a leading industrial concern for years to come.

Principal Divisions: Housing; Glass; High Performance Materials.

Principal Competitors: CRH plc; Lafarge S.A.; Owens Corning.


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