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TWO COMPANIES, AUSTRALIAN & SWISS, THAT BECAME GLOBAL GIANTS

The two companies, one in Melbourne and the other in Calcutta no longer exist as such. Two covers were sent from Robert Bryce & Co. Pty. Ltd. to Messrs. Volkart Brothers, 8 Clive Street, Calcutta, India from Robert Bryce & Co. Pty. Ltd., Melbourne, Australia, the first pre-WW II, the other during WW II. The first was sent airmail and had a total postage of 1 shilling and 2 pence with a fine SHIP MAIL ROOM/ 4.30 P 18 MR 38/ MELBOURNE postmark with a Calcutta reception postmark of 25 MR 38 on the reverse (Figures 1 & 2).

The second cover was sent in 1941 by ship mail with a total of 2½d postage and showed 4 items of censorship on the front, an opened by censor ‘3' label of Melbourne, another opened by censor label from India over the first label, a diamond boxed ‘3 passed by censor 244' and another triangular ‘passed by censor’. On the reverse, there was a reception Calcutta postmark with a boxed ‘19'. The full dates could not be read (Figures 3 & 4).

Robert Bryce set up an importing business in 1902 with his partner. The business flourished and they opened offices around Australia. In 1913 Robert Bryce and Company Limited were incorporated. In 1923 the company extended its activities to New Zealand. The Melbourne company was listed at 145-147 Glenlyon Road, Brunswick Victoria. Following many years of successful growth, and to further strengthen its financial base, the company went public in 1951.

The chemical industry prior to WW II, was still in its infancy in Australia, and manufactured only a few basic chemicals. The company played an important role in meeting Australia’s need for imported chemicals. In 1969, world-wide links were established with Internatio Müller N.V., a Dutch Company who subsequently acquired 100% ownership of the company. To further strengthen supplier relationships, to realise synergies and add more value to the customer’s supply chain, the 2 companies combined forces with Swift Company in 1999 to enter the new century as Australia’s and New Zealand’s leading chemical distribution company.

Swift had commenced business in 1897 when F. Glencross Swift formed a trading company in Australia, and it quickly grew to become a major importer of consumer goods. Shortages of these products during WW I encouraged local production and Swift began supplying new manufacturing plants with chemical raw materials. In 1996 Swift also joined the Dutch company complementing the existing chemical distribution business of Robert Bryce & Company. These companies now trade as Swift & Company Limited in Australia and New Zealand, within the chemical Division of the global IMCD group (a gargantuan world-wide company with multifaceted business interests).

Volkart Brothers originated with Salomon Volkart (1816-1893) who was born on May 21, 1816 and grew up within the close ties of a well established aristocratic family. His father Johannes was a master builder, head sheriff and a member of the Swiss Cantonal Great Council. There were 12 children, of which 6 survived infancy. Salomon enjoyed a superb education at the best schools of that time. In 1844/45 his travels took him to India where his younger brother, Johann Georg worked in Calcutta as a cotton purchaser. Upon returning to Switzerland, Salomon spent a number of years working for a fabrics printing firm in Winterthur, travelling extensively through Europe. The travels moulded a cosmopolitan personality.

In February 1851 the 2 brothers, Salomon and Johann Georg, founded their own company, Volkart Brothers of Winterthur and Bombay. The reference to "Merchants and Agents" contained in the circular issued on incorporation provided only an indirect clue as to the purpose of the business: the direct exchange of Indian products (cotton, oils, tea, coffee, cocoa, spices, rubber to mention but a few) for manufactured goods from Europe (soap, paper, matches, watches, textiles, machinery and more). After their initial success, they founded new branches in Colombo (1857), Cochin (1859) and Karachi (1861). Later new branches were developed in Shanghai, Singapore and Osaka, Japan. In 1861, just a few days before his scheduled return to Switzerland, Johann Georg Volker died unexpectedly in Bombay at the age of 36, and the business carried on with non-family partners. Salomon is seen in Figure 5 and brother Johann Georg in Figure 6.

To expedite and expand trade with India, the company founded a London based subsidiary in 1868. Salomon’s health declined and he decided to withdraw from active involvement in the company in 1875, when he became a dormant partner up to his death in 1893. The leadership of the company passed to the Reinhart family and branches were opened in Sao Paulo Brasil, Mexico City and Dallas, Texas.

Even before the Chemical division, known as Voltas, was born the import of chemicals and pharmaceuticals featured strongly in the trading activities of Volkart Brothers. Right from the first year of Voltas in 1954-55, the company began representations for Indian chemicals manufacturers. They had a pilot plant for manufacturing Vitamin A for Roche Products by 1957-58, and soon after for manufacturing pharmaceuticals for Merck, Sharpe and Dohme. It is most likely that the chemicals division of Volkart Brothers in Calcutta was the addressee in the 2 covers in 1938 and 1941.

This is the ‘recipe’ for the formation of a massive international group of companies.


 
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