Investing in Ceramics: Saint-Gobain Celebrates 350 Years of Achievements
Saint-Gobain is celebrating its 350th anniversary in 2015.
Saint-Gobain has kicked off a year-long commemoration of its 350th anniversary. The company, which currently operates in 64 countries and has over 180,000 employees worldwide, focuses on serving its many industries, including the sustainable habitat and construction sectors, as well as the high-performance materials sector. But in 2015, the company is also making time to celebrate.
The Early Days
Many years ago, when the name “Saint-Gobain” only referred to a small French village northeast of Paris, King Louis XIV of France decided he wanted to compete in the European mirror market. At the urging of his minister of finance, the king granted the Dunoyer Co. the exclusive right to manufacture mirror glass in 1665.
“The aim was to counter the supremacy of the Venetian Republic in the mirror market,” says Marie de Laubier, director of general relations at Saint-Gobain. The Royal Manufactory of Mirror Glass began operating on the Faubourg St. Antoine in Paris, backed by state financing and the promise of a commercial monopoly that would last for a period of 20 years.
In 1684, the company produced the mirrors that would decorate the Hall of Mirrors, the grand central gallery at the Palace of Versailles. However, the 1683 death of the royal minister of finance and the subsequent establishment of competition in the French glass industry led to technical and commercial difficulties.
“Despite the significant order for the Hall of Mirrors, it was only in the beginning of the 18th century that the Royal Manufactory of Mirror Glass began to develop and prosper,” says de Laubier.
Ceramic and Glass Connections
Saint-Gobain has been involved in glass manufacturing since the company’s inception in the 17th century. By 1858, the company produced nearly 25% of all European mirror glass. However, mirror glass came at a steep price, and demand was limited as a result. Saint-Gobain began expanding into new divisions, including architectural glass, automotive glass and packaging in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The company’s entrance into refractories and ceramics came a bit later. “In 1929, Saint-Gobain joined with Corning Glass Works through the electro-refractory division to create a production unit for the manufacture of fused-cast refractory bricks in Modane, Italy,” says de Laubier.
While that factory was destroyed during World War II, the company continued and expanded its activity in the ceramics arena. “In the 1950s and, ’70s, the ceramics activity diversified into new products and new markets, and expanded further with the acquisition of Norton in 1990,” explains de Laubier.
Saint-Gobain has not remained stagnant in recent years. The company’s acquisition of the Norton Co. in 1990 marked a major expansion of its U.S. presence, as well as a new focus on the high-performance ceramics and abrasives business sectors. In addition, the 1996 acquisition of the Poliet Group moved the industrial Saint-Gobain group into the world of wholesaling construction materials and the 2005 purchase of British Plaster Board (BPB) demonstrated the company’s commitment to strengthening its construction product sector.
To this day, the purchase of BPB (€5.9 billion, or about $6.6 billion) ranks as the one of the largest acquisitions in the history of Saint-Gobain. “The building distribution sector today represents over 4,400 outlets in 27 countries, mostly European, and 46% of the Saint-Gobain group’s turnover,” says de Laubier.
Saint-Gobain’s continued expansion into new countries and diverse industries has helped the company remain robust. During the 1990s, under Chairman Jean-Louis Beffa, the group’s global presence spread from 18 countries to 64.
The growth is only expected to continue. “Having a very strong capacity for innovation, Saint-Gobain has always been researching new products, new processes, and new markets,” says de Laubier. “The group has a very solid corporate culture that creates a strong attachment in its employees. Since the 1970s, Saint-Gobain has cultivated a decentralized culture and defines its subsidiaries as a ‘community of unified entrepreneurs,’ in the words of its directors.”
So how does a company pay tribute to more than three centuries of success? By throwing a worldwide party, of course! Saint-Gobain is celebrating its anniversary by installing four “Future Sensations” pavilions—with themes of Look, Listen, Color and Create—in four major cities in 2015. “These pavilions, built with Saint-Gobain materials, offer a unique esthetic and sensorial experience,” says de Laubier. The pavilions are free and open to the public.
In addition to the traveling pavilions, Saint-Gobain has created a dynamic online exposition to highlight the company’s history. Visitors to the site can explore photos from the company’s past, videos from the anniversary pavilions, and anecdotes and memories contributed by users. The online exhibition has also been linked to an anniversary book, Saint-Gobain 1665-2015: The History of the Future, which has been published in five languages.
“Our history is proof that we are a company that has consistently pushed back boundaries and taken up technological challenges,” says Pierre-André de Chalendar, chairman and CEO. “As we look back over our past and examine today’s world and what we do, we are convinced that there are many reasons to believe in the future. So it is with our sights set on the future and innovation that we are celebrating this anniversary. It is our optimism that we want to share with you in 2015.”
For more information, visit www.saint-gobain350years.com.
Editor’s Note: All images courtesy of Saint-Gobain.