Yann Lissillour, CEO and Head of Group M&A at Safic-Alcan, describes the company’s history over 175 years of navigating the raw materials and specialty chemicals world, and offers a vision for the future.
When I first joined Safic-Alcan 22 years ago, our market and our industry were very different. During my time within the company, I have held various commercial and managerial positions and am still in charge of our different acquisitions around the globe.
This first-hand experience of the evolution within the specialty chemical distribution market has shown me that celebrating 175 years of existence is also an ode to the history surrounding the supplying and distribution of raw materials/specialty chemicals and, even more so, to the French and global historical accounts as well.
In this article I would like to take you on a journey beginning with the beautiful entrepreneurial and resilient story of our company, founded in the distant year of 1847. I’ll also share our vision for the future of our role in the industry. Only through the establishment of true durable links – with our partners, customers, employees and society in general – will we continue to reinvent and innovate within the chemical universe.
After a series of highly difficult years – through pandemics and current uncertain times of war – we, from Safic-Alcan, through the narrative of our own adventure, would like to convey to you a message of hope and passion for the industry and market in which we all evolve. Happy Reading.
An entrepreneurial adventure
Around the year 1830, the Industrial revolution was already taking its first steps in Europe, benefiting consumer goods in particular and, as new frontiers were explored, exotic products started to flood the markets, gradually changing the economic scenario of European States in particular.
However, when in 1847 (even before the Eiffel Tower was built – which only happened in 1889) the sons of Maurice Hecht, a former craftsman turned ivory broker, founded the tropical products importing company Hecht Frères et Cie (in English: Hecht Brothers & Co), France and Europe were going through a serious economic crisis.
Though agricultural in origin, the recession quickly spread to industry, commerce and banking, resulting in a long list of bankruptcies. The slump worsened during the revolution of 1848. Facing un unfavourable context, the very first Safic-Alcan adventure struggled to achieve results before 1850.
Under the second empire, however, business began to blossom. The Hecht brothers – Myrtil, Albert and Henri – were not only first-rate businessmen, but also outstanding characters, each in his own way. One was the government's art advisor. Henri was a friend of Léon Gambetta’s, the most popular leader of the republican opposition to Napoleon III.
During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, Henri Hecht gave financial support to Gambetta, then minister of the interior in the government of National Defence. On 7th October he helped him to leave the capital by balloon to lead the resistance from Tours. Most of the balloons used in the siege of Paris were built at Orléans Station and were covered with an envelope waterproofed by a rubber solution – the material which would become a core component in the writing of our history.
Rubber: a long and durable relationship
Initially, the Hecht brothers imported several types of tropical products, excluding rubber, which was still very little used in France. In 1850, the year in which it was first known to have been used, the Magasins Généraux warehouse in the Le Marais district
Yann Lissillour, CEO and Head of Group M&A at Safic-Alcan recorded the following:
•38,960 canes (including 14,430 red and white Manila canes and 1,000 Malacca canes) for making walking sticks and umbrella handles;
•2,140 rattan canes, Asian tropical climbing palms used to make bands, cane bottoms of chairs and wickerwork;
•6,945 Far Eastern yellow bamboos, widely used in the production of rustic furniture;
•2,041 animal horns (1,282 from Calcutta [Kolkata], 759 from Siam – modern-day Thailand), the ivory of which was used for billiard balls and some sculptures;
•1,940 bay trees, the leaves of which were consumed as condiments.
The appearance and endurance of rubber
Rubber from the west coast of Africa appeared on the French market in 1856. Two years later, on 14th December 1858, the Hecht brothers imported their first 11 cases of crude rubber.
From then on, the rise of rubber was meteoric. In 1859 rubber (mainly from Java and Brazil) already accounted for 32 tonnes out of total imports of 149 tonnes, that is, 21%.
The other items were mother-of-pearl (78 tonnes, 52%), saffron (12 tonnes, 8%) plus cocoa, cane, shellac, elephant tusks and orchil (a lichen that grows in the Mediterranean region and Madagascar and is used to dye wool and silk dark red).
Barely two years after entering this market, the Hecht Frères firm, which had been one of the first in the world to take a systematic interest in crude rubber, was already meeting 11% of domestic requirements, and in 1864 we made our first sale of Rubber to the Hutchinson company, making them one of our oldest clients.
By 1870 Hecht Frères et Cie were supplying 28% of the 800 tonnes of crude rubber consumed in France. Rubber accounted for the company’s entire trading business in 1881 (127 tonnes).
From product to industry
Continuing to be a major supplier of natural Rubber, the Hecht brothers kept, nonetheless, an eye at diversification, not only of products, but also of markets. Following the trend of trading with colonies and non-European countries, our company established activities in places such as Gabon, the French Congo and Madagascar, a very early glimpse of something which would become an integral part of our DNA: a global presence, with a multicultural ecosystem.
As for the product, Rubber was soon to become a key component within a broader industry in the hands of people such as Thomas Hancock, Charles Macintosh and, of course, Charles Goodyear, whom discovered by chance that when heated, rubber mixed with sulphur becomes insensitive to temperature changes.
He developed “metallisation”, which consists of plunging rubber into molten sulphur, but omitted to patent it. Hancock, who was aware of the result, conducted his own research and called his process – which he patented on 21st November 1843 – “vulcanisation”.
Vulcanised rubber exhibits mechanical and physical properties far superior to those of raw rubber. The Englishman Parkes improved the method in 1846 by using a solution of sulphur chloride in carbon sulphide. In 1858, the Americans invented ‘devulcanisation’ to regenerate used rubber.
The rest – as you all in our industry know well – is History.
Changing and adapting through times
From the 20th century onwards, the company went through major shifts in management, structure, products and positioning, exploring materials as different in nature as elastomers and palm oil and latex from then distant Asia.
It was around that time, in the late 1920s, that we first built our business relationship with DuPont, by becoming their agent in Europe, specifically due to their interest in accelerators (mineral or organic substances that accelerate the reaction between sulphur and gum during vulcanisation), antioxidants, pigments etc.
Two World Wars came and went, shaking manufacturing to its core, testing our industry and, moreover, our businesses. Times were, as now, uncertain and the economy was shaky, but through a series of bold decisions, then administrators made one last change to the company’s face.
So, in 1938, we became Safic (Société Anonyme Française pour l’Importation du Caoutchouc)-Alcan. The directors were Maurice Alcan, Etienne Crémieu-Alcan, André Steinberg-Terquem and Harry Levis.
In the decades after the war, filled with market turmoil and a swift change in our business focus, especially through the oil crisis in the 70s and 80s, and with trading proving volatile, our CEO at that time, Alain Alcan, decided to focus on relaunching the group’s distribution activities, which were the limited to France and Spain, and to a lesser extent, Italy and the United States.
The arrival of my predecessor Martial Lecat in the late 80s was a game changer. With the massive task ahead of him to reposition and broaden our portfolio, he was also responsible for building a European distribution network to underpin this work.
Next move, The World
Focused on relaunching, adhesives and plastics, particularly in France, Safic-Alcan, shaken after some difficult years after latex prices dropped, also decided to eliminate risky business such as cocoa, coffee, cashew nuts and cattle feed.
Once the risks and business assessed, it was time to take off into foreign markets. Our strategy? The human and amicable acquisitions. This approach has allowed us to ensure, very early on in the process, that the company in question is compatible with the rest of the group. After 30+ successful acquisitions globally, we are proud of our model.
Most of the time, Safic-Alcan approaches family businesses that can relate to the company and its plans. Many directors like the idea of becoming “intrapreneurs” within the group after the merger and acquisition is complete and choose to carry on their career there, alongside their employees.
Our UK, Belgium, Nordics, Maghreb, North American, Eastern Europe and many other operations, came to life following the path of integrating local structures into our existing group, giving us a sense of belonging and shared responsibility with local leadership.
A move we are particularly proud of was made in 2015, when the management team and our employees became majority shareholders of our company, thus reinforcing the strong ties and the “family owned business” sentiment we share globally with one another.
Through hardships and uncertainty, our history shows that resilience, strong bonds and mostly our people are the main drivers behind our decisions. From our acquisition process to the fact that we are an employee-owned company, it was only a matter of time before our focus naturally turned to questions of responsible and sustainable development.
Sustainability: A question of past, present and, most importantly, future
Nowadays, to be sustainable, a chemical distributor not only needs to be the link between clients and suppliers, but also so much more.
In addition to strength and reliability of working capital, we need impeccable logistic services (given current supply chain mayhem, this is a major challenge) a clear path on digitalisation (a state-of-the-art Website coupled with the imminent launch of our product picker, our marketing initiatives and constantly improved reporting systems) and an ESG program that can unite employees and partners alike.
The role of a distributor in the sustainability chain may not always be immediately apparent. One of our greatest responsibilities is to influence the usage of products with sustainable advantages. We do this by working closely with our principals, but also by constantly scouring the market for innovative products that have a sustainable edge.
We have been forging ahead at pace since joining the UN Global compact in 2018. We employed a Group ESG Manager from 2019, starting the deployment across the company with our Innovation and Sustainability council and sub-councils to monitor our initiatives and performances in responsible Innovation, environment, and societal responsibilities. This led us to publish our first Sustainability Report in 2019, and we released our second in 2021. 2022 has seen the launch of our carbon footprint assessment, where we are assisted by an external consultant, given the complexity attached to our supply chains.
Our EcoVadis and CDP ratings are testament of our progress on this key pillar for Safic-Alcan.
Committed to promote health and wellbeing, we encourage our employees to participate in the “Feet Week Challenge” every year. This event is organised by a leading cosmetic partner to support the Fondation Arthritis and, all money raised goes towards supporting medical research on rheumatism and musculoskeletal diseases.
This event is an opportunity for us as well to strengthen the human link between all the teams.
The human link has always been significant in our way of conducting business. We have been forging human connections in across industries since the 1800s. Understanding and respecting our human relationships is equally important to us today, as demonstrated by our amicable acquisitions approach.
A brighter future ahead
The unprecedented supply chain challenges we face as an industry also present us with great opportunity. As we desperately seek to source raw materials, it has never made more sense to put sustainability at the heart of all we do.
We believe that embracing responsible practices is the best way to ensure the viability of our sector as we continue to expand. Put simply, the chemical industry is here to stay, and sustainability is a key factor to create added value while taking our responsibilities by contributing to our common sustainable development goals.
From sourcing innovative new products and encouraging the use of more responsible materials to critically examining our own practices, Safic-Alcan will continually strive for excellence in this field.
I leave you with these thoughts and invite you to discover the full story of Safic-Alcan with the release of our book later this year, A History of Progress. As we reflect on our history, we look forward to a future where our human links, the well-being of all our partners and responsible practices form the strong foundation for our next 175 years!
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