Engelhorn was born in Mannheim in 1821. His father was a brewery master and pub owner. Engelhorn started his career as a goldsmith travelling through Europe before setting up a goldsmith shop in his hometown.
The 1848 revolution led to the bankruptcy of his goldsmith business so he diversified by building a gas plant (gasworks) and selling gas bottles to pubs and workshops. Three years later, he was running the public gas factory and lightning up the streets.
William Perkin discovered that tar could be used to make synthetic dyes from aniline in 1856. Gas factories produced tar as byproduct. Engelhorn saw the potential and created a small aniline and dyestuff factory.
Engelhorn needed two other chemicals to produce dyes: soda and acids. He convinced a few business partners to set up a new company to produce acids and soda in 1865. They named the company Badische Anilin und Soda Fabrik (Baden Aniline and Soda Factory). Engelhorn left the company in 1885 after a dispute with his partners and bought a pharma company called “Boehringer & Sohne” (now Boehringer Ingelheim).
BASF was built on two key principles: internationalisation and diversification.
The multinational roots of BASF were laid at a very early stage: a sales office was set up in New York in 1873, a production site was built near Moscow in 1876 and a French factory was acquired in 1878. In the 1960’s, plants were built in Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, France, India, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Spain, United Kingdom and the United States.
BASF produced many chemicals including soda (1865), sulphuric acid (1865), ammonia (1913), explosives (1916), rubber, fuels, coatings (1920s), polystyrene (1930s), nylon (1950s), Styropor (1951). In the 1960s, focus was set on coatings, pharmaceuticals, pesticides and fertilizers.
WWII & Nuremberg
BASF merged with 5 other German chemical companies including Bayer and Agfa in 1925 to form a new conglomerate called “IG Farben”. The Allies seized and trialed IG Farben at Nuremberg (The IG Farben Trial). IG Farben had a factory in Auschwitz and produced the infamous Zyklon B gas used in the concentration camps. The Nuremberg trials resulted in the split of IG Farben into BASF, Bayer and Hoechst.
BASF is listed on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange, London Stock Exchange and Zurich Stock Exchange. 36% of BASF shares are held in Germany, 11% in the UK and 17% in the U.S.
75% of BASF’ shares are held by institutional investors. American investment company “BlackRock” is the largest institutional investors of BASF with more than 5%. BlackRock is the world’s largest asset manager with $6.84 trillion under management.
BASF is present in 80 countries and has around 570 business units. BASF operates in chemicals (solvents, amines, resins, glues, gases, petrochemicals), plastics (engineering plastics, styrenics, Polyurethanes, Foams, Polyamides and bioplastics) performance products, functional solutions, biotechnology, agricultural solutions, and oil & gas.
Looking at the financial numbers, we see
(1) a structural decrease in revenue and a structural decline of revenue per employee. Probably due to an inability to innovate.
(2) a structural increase in net assets and asset value compared to revenue. Probably caused by a rational type of management. The company is run by financiers and technicians instead of commercials and businessmen. The rational dominates over the intuitive.
Past, Current and Future Challenges
- Sustainability & Environmental
BASF had a sustainability problem since it’s early beginning. Engelhorn had to set up the first plant on the other side of the Rhine river (Ludwigshafen), because the town council of Mannheim was afraid that the air pollution from the chemical plant would bother the inhabitants. The owners of BASF (BlackRock) are the world’s biggest polluters and largest investor in coal plants. BlackRock owns more oil, gas, and thermal coal reserves than any other investor. Greenpeace has expressed deep concerns at BASF’s refusal to release environmental information on its operations in China. BASF discharged chromium into the Mississippi River (2009) and released Trilon-B (tetrasodium EDTA) into the Rhine river (2013).
- Public Health
BASF was at the hart of the Fipronil pesticide egg scandal in 2017. In 1997, Knoll Pharmaceutical (BASF) paid $98 million to settle a class-action lawsuit from approximately five million patients over suppressing publication of a study about its drug Synthroid.
BASF has become too big to innovate. They’re a corporate dinosaur where good ideas are killed by corporate politics. They have to acquire other companies to keep growing substantialy.
A report by the European Green Party has shed light on the fact that BASF is not paying its fair share of taxes. They’re using loopholes in the European tax systems to avoid paying taxes. They also lobby to oppose reforms for greater public transparency of multinationals.
- Existential Issues & Restructuring
Companies like BASF may lose their drive and the possibility to inspire their employees. How can BASF become fit, sharp and agile? How can BASF disrupt chemistry? How can BASF leave its ivory tower?
What would Engelhorn do?
Engelhorn was an entrepreneur and businessman, but he was also an opportunist. His father wanted him to study grammar but he left school earlier to become a goldsmith. When the gold business went bad, he switched to the gas business. Then, he went into the dye business, the soda and acid business and finally the pharma business. We can all agree, If Engelhorn was still alive today, he would ask himself the question: Why is BASF still in the chemistry business?
BASF is a champion
The history of BASF and Germany are closely related. In fact, the chemical history of Germany can be summarised with BASF. BASF is the world’s biggest chemical company, and this is a remarkable achievement. It doesn’t happen very often that Europeans score better than Americans, but BASF does.
BASF ueber alles
- Friedrich Engelhorn
- BASF – how the world’s largest chemical concern evades millions in taxes
- German chemical giant BASF to restrict use of pesticide in egg scandal
- Agrichemical Industry Secrets