About Compagnie de Saint-Gobain
A workshop goes industrial
Louis XIV signed the letters patent establishing the Manufacture des Glaces de Miroirs in Paris in October 1665 – and founded another 25 such establishments that year. In 1684: 357 mirrors for the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles.
Buoyant demand from building companies and, in particular, decorators, paired with its technical monopoly on its European markets, explain the fact that the Manufacture’s sales quadrupled from 1720 to 1786.
From legal monopoly to free competition
The end of the legal monopoly brought the days of privilege to an end, and forced the Manufacture to adjust its business model – and culture.
It switched corporate status to become a société anonyme (joint-stock company), and thereby adjust to the new business environment more efficiently, in 1830.
The company established a subsidiary to make the sodium carbonate (soda) that it needed to make glass, using the then revolutionary Leblanc process, in 1806. That was its first venture into the chemical industry. It invested heavily in its new plant, the Soudière de Chauny, from 1820 to 1835.
Industrial revolutions and modern times
Buoyant markets, international expansion and market diversification kept Saint-Gobain on an upward trend for three quarters of a century.
The glass industry blossomed during the second half of the 19th century. Worldwide production grew practically 9% a year from 1850 to 1870. New products then created fresh markets in the first half of the 20th century: continuous flow process, glass-tempering technology (1929), the automotive industry (in the 1930s), electrofused refractories, and glass wool and glass fiber all helped.
By 1872, Saint-Gobain held 37% of France’s mineral-chemical capacity. It branched out into nitrogen, petroleum, wood and paper between the wars. By the time the 1960s came around, it was a fast-growing diversified group, grappling with questions about where to steer its strategy next, and where to allocate its resources accordingly. It played a role shuffling up France’s chemical industry, by parenting its Péchiney-Saint-Gobain subsidiary in 1962.
An exogenous development promptly shelved those plans: a left-wing coalition won France’s 1981 presidential election and the group was nationalized in 1982.
The redirection towards high-tech materials
Disposals included its Corporate business line (1988) and its Wood and Paper business line (1994), which were then out of the picture. New operations came in: Norton (1990) and Carborundum (1996) contributed abrasives, purpose-engineered ceramics and plastics, and Bicron (1990) brought crystals and sensors. All those business lines went into what became the High-Performance Materials sector.
The Poliet Group acquisition in 1996 was the first milestone, and was part of Saint-Gobain’s move into downstream building distribution. At the end of that decade, in late 2005, it took over British Plaster Board (BPB), the world’s leader in its field, to round off the range of construction materials made by Saint-Gobain.
In those 20 years, from 1986 to 2006, Saint-Gobain saw its sales multiplied by 3.5. New business acquisitions account for 54% of that growth.
In 2008, it refocused its strategy on the habitat and construction markets and set out to:
- building the homes of the future
- step up development in emerging countries
- further its operational excellence
About 75% of Saint-Gobain's €43.8 billion in sales last year came from business lines more or less associated with the habitat and construction markets. The Group is active in 59 countries.