Integrating a group with its own long history: Rhodia

It is not possible to understand the new Solvay without turning one’s attention to the roots of Rhodia. These are those of France's powerful Rhône-Poulenc group. Like Solvay, a child of the second industrial revolution, Rhône-Poulenc is part of the history of chemistry and European industry. Over a 150 year period, the two groups have many times crossed paths, partnered and contracted with each other before eventually coming together to form one company.

The Rhone Valley, the cradle of a global brand

ts-integrating1In the middle of the 19th century, the young chemist Prosper Monnet founded in Lyon one of the first French companies producing the aniline, used in dyeing (1857). In 1895, the company became a public limited company under the new name of Société Chimique des Usines du Rhône (SCUR). Among SCUR's banner products, we find vanillin (1894), "Rodo”synthetic perfumes (1896), Aspirine du Rhône (1902), cellulose acetate (1902), and as soon as 1917, Rhodoïd, a cellulose-based plastic.  In 1902, SCUR launched the Rhodia trademark to designate the vanilla flavor along with some products derived from acetate. It is also under this brand that SCUR developed, from 1919 onwards, its first foreign subsidiaries in Brazil and the United States.

First partnerships with Solvay

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In 1922, SCUR joined forces with the Comptoir des Textiles Artificiels, controlled by the Gillet family to found Rhodiaceta, specializing in the production of artificial silk. It so happened that among the friends of the Gillet family was Emmanuel Janssen, managing partner of Solvay. This proximity created a long-lasting financial and technical collaboration. Both groups engaged in joint investments in France, especially in the mechanical production of glass, chemicals and synthetic fibers. On leaving the senior management of Solvay, Emmanuel Janssen took with him most of these shareholdings which he integrated into other companies, including Union Chimique Belge (today’s UCB).

Rise of a giant: Rhône-Poulenc

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In 1928, SCUR merged with the Établissements Poulenc Frères based in Ivry-sur-Seine (Paris), to give rise to the Rhône-Poulenc group. Very active in pharmaceuticals and fibers, the group diversified after World War II to become a major producer of synthetic fibers (nylon, polyester), penicillin, and silicones. During the 1960s and 1970s, a series of mergers and acquisitions propelled Rhône-Poulenc to the forefront of the French chemical industry. With a large number of divisions and businesses, Rhône-Poulenc reordered its structure, in particular by divesting of its petrochemicals and mass polymers activities, in so doing providing a great opportunity for Solvay, which was then expanding its plastics transformation business. The Belgian group purchased the Établissements Maréchal, four factories specialized in PVC calendering and coating.

Converging dynamics

The two oil shocks of 1973 and 1981 transformed the entire chemical industry. Subject to the same global uncertainties, Rhône-Poulenc and Solvay applied, each in its own way, not dissimilar strategies: structuring into divisions or sectors, de-emphasizing petrochemicals, growth in less cyclical and higher value-added activities, focus on leadership positions.

In the early 1980s, the two groups' trajectories again came close.  Rhône-Poulenc was nationalized in 1982 and its CEO Jean Gandois resigned. Shaken by its first financial losses, Solvay saw him as a potential candidate for CEO. Finally, this did not happen, with Jacques Solvay largely confirmed in his position.

The wedding of the century

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The 1990s were marked by the privatization of Rhône-Poulenc and the big split between its pharmaceutical business and its chemical, plastics and fibers activities. The first continued under the name of Rhône-Poulenc until its merger with Hoechst to form Aventis. The latter were united under the banner of Rhodia, which became independent in 1998. The challenge facing the new company was to reduce the debt inherited from the separation from Rhône-Poulenc, while strengthening its presence in specialty chemicals. That objective had been attained at the very time that Solvay was seeking to reinvest the proceeds from the sale of its pharmaceutical business in an ambitious industrial project. 

Rhodia joined Solvay in 2011. The new group launched into a high-speed transformation process.  Never was any change carried out at Solvay at such an intense pace! Today, scarcely two years after the operation, the new Solvay affirms itself as one of the major players in the global chemical industry.