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Huge press gathering for Hydro history

September 21, 2005, 16:00 CEST

Practically the entire Oslo-based press force gathered on Wednesday when the Pax publishing house presented Hydro's three-volume history, the result of a 10-year long project.

Professor Francis Sejersted, the historian responsible for the project, described the occasion as "a momentous day". With some irony he was able to inform those present that Hydro approached the University of Oslo before the Norwegian government announced its plans to celebrate Norway's 100th birthday!

Handled properly

"Hydro has played a not unsubstantial role in Norway's history throughout the last 100 years. This also incurs an obligation, which Hydro has fulfilled in a generous manner," said Sejersted.

He underlined that specially commissioned research should be given critical attention. In Hydro's case the researchers were granted every freedom and free access to sources. He therefore thanked Hydro for the way in which the company handled such a demanding project.

Historian Einar Lie, who wrote the last of the three volumes, briefly outlined the main incidents affecting the company from 1905 to the present day.

Lie described Hydro as a major company throughout all of its history, and as a company that has always had natural resources as its basis. Whereas the company was weakened in the 1930s, Lie is of the opinion that the Second World War provided "new opportunities", and that Hydro's management pursued a pragmatic line here.

"It was only at the end of 1943 that Hydro's management distanced itself from its association with IG Farben," said Lie, who pointed out that it is difficult to understand how the company could enter into such a collaboration during these years.

This is also a topic that Hydro's President and CEO Eivind Reiten touched upon in his introductory remarks.

Fruitful cooperation

According to Lie, the postwar period was a time of a mutual and "hugely fruitful cooperation" with the Norwegian state. Lie also touched upon the 1960s, which he described as a turning point characterized by the way in which former CEO Johan B. Holte radically changed the corporate culture.

Lie dwelt for a while on the company's self-confidence in its ability to carry out major projects. Did the company have too high an opinion of itself? he wondered.

"Well, we must acknowledge that bold and major undertakings such as Oseberg, TOGI and Troll Oil were unqualified successes," he said in answer to his own question.

Lie also pointed out that its ability to carry out complex negotaitions also represented an implict company strength. And he added that Hydro is also known for its loyal culture, and for not leaking information.

According to Lie, the current Hydro is reminiscent of the company in 1905, in terms of the national and the international. But the picture has now been reversed: there is greater Norwegian ownership of the company than there was then. On the other hand, of current operations there are more outside Norway than in 1905. Markets, however, are international - then as now.

"For us historians working on Hydro's history has been a most enjoyable task. Now and again we have wondered if it has been equally enjoyable for Hydro," he added.

President and CEO Eivind Reiten did not conceal the fact it is with some trepidation that one opens one's archives to a full investigation. "Will these efforts paint a picture that we believe should not be depicted? Will circumstances be revealed that leave us in a bad light?" he asked.

"We have all along genuinely desired that the company's history – for better or worse – should be thoroughly researched. And that it should be presented in a way that qualified historians consider to be proper," explained Reiten.

"I am not quite impartial, but I have to say there are a number of fascinating pages in these three volumes. We can see how thin the line is between success and failure."

Not acceptable

"As head of Hydro in 2005, it's not my job to judge my predecessors," continued Reiten. He nevertheless wished to declare that there were decisions and circumstances in the company's history that one could not defend.

In this context he mentioned the conflicts of the early 1930s, among them the Menstad rising, and he also took up the use of slave labor during the war years.

"We cannot accept such things and have to say that the company's eagerness to achieve commercial goals went much too far here."

The work of thousands

"If I were to comment on what I think there is too little of in this historical presentation, it is how the skills and efforts of thousands of people in Hydro's organization down through the years have enabled the company to produce results. It's not just CEOs and engineers who create an industrial organism that manages to hold its own, even on a global scale, throughout 100 years. Historians provide some insights into the Hydro workers' daily life and the efforts they have made, but the space devoted to them is modest compared to the space reserved for the company's leaders," said Reiten.

He summed up the three volumes by saying they are the company's way of returning the trust it has been given. He also pointed out that the history provides examples of where innovation and restructuring have come too late.

"We can in fact see more of that than examples of our acting too soon. This confirms that we need to be foresighted and tackle restructuring dynamically."

"The most important result is that the historians have helped us gain a deeper understanding of this company," he concluded.