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Solvay chronicles its history through 12 thematic pieces
24
May '13
Solvay is part of a rare circle of 'sesquicentennial' family businesses that have been able to adapt to their time without losing their identity. The stability of its shareholding group is one reason for this longevity. Today, the founder families continue to play an important role in setting the directions of the Group and in building its culture.

The founding clan

The history of Solvay merges with that of the families which were present at its birth, around the charismatic personality of Ernest Solvay. Around the cradle of the new company, the Solvay family formed a tightly-welded 'clan'.

Everyone was involved in one way or another: parents Alexandre and Adèle with financial and moral support, brother Alfred as co-founder, sister Aurélie and wife Adèle as confidantes and first supporters. These were later joined by Ernest and Alfred's childen, including future chairmen Armand and Louis.

The founding circle also included childhood friend Louis-Philippe Acheroy (appointed senior technician) and Guillaume Nélis, the main individual source of funding. It was through him that the Pirmez and Lambert families agreed to fund half of the operation.

With the incorporation of Solvay as a limited partnership (in French: commandite), the minority of the shares were held by members of the Solvay family and the majority by the Pirmez, Lambert and Nélis families. Even today, the some 2,500 descendants of this small group remain the reference shareholders.

Remaining "among ourselves", a sensible choice

The limited partnership status offered several advantages, including that of maintaining the corporation's independence, as shares could be transferred only with the consent of the partners, thereby ensuring the closed nature of the society. Nor was there any obligation to publish earnings figures.

"To live happy, live hidden"; this was the preferred system for over a century as long as self-financing was sufficient to enable the company to prosper discreetly. Another reason for this stability was purely administrative: changing legal form could have potentially jeopardized the renewal of Solvay's strategic mining concessions.

Inter-generational successions, a major challenge

In this protected system, the founders' descendants succeeded one another at the Solvay helm. Membership of the family was not enough to reach the top positions; it was also important to have the appropriate skills.

Sons were pushed towards civil engineering, and it was customary for the expected successor to undertake a full traineeship. When blood ties reached their limits, in-laws were brought in, with senior positions occupied by Fernand van der Straeten (1894 to 1913), Emile Tournay (1914 to 1947), Emmanuel Janssen (1916 to 1931), Philippe Aubertin (1929 to 1958) and René Boël, appointed as manager in 1931 and chairman in 1964.

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