History of Hüls AG

The Buna plant

The Hüls company began as Chemische Werke Hüls GmbH on May 9, 1938, in Marl. As part of a four-year government plan to prepare for war, the companies IG Farbenindustrie AG and Bergwerksgesellschaft Hibernia AG acquired 74 and 26 percent of shares, respectively, in the newly founded venture. With this move, the world’s largest global chemical corporation at the time entered into a joint venture with the mining sector of VEBA AG, which at the time was state-owned. The new company was to manufacture Buna, a synthetic rubber, and ethylene oxide derivatives.

Light arch plant in the 1950ies

The site was well chosen for the specific situation. The plant was located at the Wesel-Datteln Canal and close to coking and hydrogenation plants, which allowed an efficient production cycle to be set up. Hibernia, a mining company, supplied exhaust gas from its hydrogenation plant in Scholven, which Hüls used for manufacturing acetylene and ethylene by the arc process. The resulting hydrogen was returned to the hydrogenation plant, which liquefied coal for combining hydrogen in order to make gasoline. Acetylene was processed into Buna (the name is derived from butadiene and Natrium, the German word for sodium) in a four-step process, while ethylene was turned into, for example, antifreeze products for engines, by way of ethylene oxide.

Hüls and I.G. Farben

At the management level, I.G. Farbenindustrie AG kept Bergwerksgesellschaft Hibernia as a junior partner. The premises of the new company at the Marl site came from I.G. Farben. They were leased to Hüls, and I.G. Farben contributed its production patents free of charge, but reserved the rights to all improvements and sold the manufactured products through a centralized sales organization. Hibernia did not receive any market information. The Buna bales were shipped in August 29, 1940. The management staff–down to the foreman level–consisted exclusively of I.G. Farbenindustrie AG employees from other sites, while workers were mostly recruited from the area surrounding Münster. After 1941, forced laborers from the Soviet Union, Poland, Slovakia, Italy, France, Belgium, and the Netherland also worked at the plant.

A scientific study of the history of Hüls between 1938 and 1979 by Drs. Paul Erker and Bernhard Lorentz, of Munich and Hamburg discusses the partly unknown role of Chemische Werke Hüls during the Third Reich in great detail. The study was published in 2003.

Years after WWII and de-merger

After the end of the Second World War, Hüls was under British administration as part of the effort to break up I.G. Farbenindustrie AG and was classified as “prohibited industry II,” which meant it had to find a new product base, since the manufacture of Buna would be banned in the mid-term. In addition, the company was to become an independent stock corporation, which entailed organizing sales, research, and technical service in completely new departments.

The company was re-established as Chemische Werke Hüls AG on January 1, 1953. Fifty percent of the shares belonged to Chemieverwaltungsgesellschaft, a successor organization of the de-merged I.G. Farbenindustrie AG, in which Bayer AG, the former Hoechst AG, as well as BASF AG, which had been spun off from I.G. Farben, held shares. Another 25 percent of the shares went to Kohleverwertungsgesellschaft, which Gelsenkirchener Bergwerksaktiengesellschaft (GBAG), Ruhrgas AG, and Steinkohlen-Elektrizität AG (STEAG)–today’s Energy Business Area of Evonik Industries–owned in equal thirds. The remaining 25 percent were the property of Bergwerksgesellschaft Hibernia AG.

This juncture in the history of Hüls AG highlights three different aspects, which would dominate the development of the company from then on:

In the years following the Second World War, Chemische Werke Hüls AG turned into a manufacturer of basic chemicals. The production of surfactants, polyvinyl chloride, raw materials for coatings, polystyrene, and plasticizers started on a large scale after 1945. Polyethylene, polypropylene, and once again, Buna, would be added to the portfolio in the 1950s. In the 1960s, the company began to focus on specialty chemicals and engineering plastics. In 1979, the portfolio was expanded with isophorone products, precursor materials of coatings for high-tech applications, such as the outside coating of the Space Shuttle. During the 1970s, research and technical service geared to marketing interests. While sales offices organized the distribution in Germany, the company set up international offices in other countries, starting with Hüls Far East Ltd. in Hong Kong in the 1950s.

This was followed by branch offices in western Europe and around the globe in the 1970s. At the same time, the international joint ventures established in the 1960s in Marl (Katalysatorenwerke Houdry-Hüls GmbH, Faserwerke Hüls GmbH with Eastman Kodak) were supplemented with foreign subsidiaries and joint ventures in the 1970s (Servo B.V. in Delden, Netherlands and Daicel-Hüls Ltd. in Osaka, Japan).

From 1988, the product structure was strategically aligned toward specialty chemicals by focusing on silica and fatty chemicals. The production of surfactants, polyethylene and polypropylene (VESTOLEN®) and polyvinyl chloride (VESTOLIT®) was divested in the 1990s.

Until 1979, Chemische Werke Hüls was tied to diverse interests and directives due to a large number of owners. The company thoroughly was under the influence of Bayer AG, which wanted to prevent Hüls from straying into its territory. Furthermore, the company was dependent on Bergwerksgesellschaft Hibernia AG, which held the licenses to manufacture polyethylene and polypropylene. After 1979, Hüls was exclusively owned by VEBA AG, which used it as a subsidiary to pool its chemical activities and allowed for the development of an international expansion strategy. Acquisitions–for example, the chemicals division of Dynamit Nobel AG (1988, silica and oil chemicals in Rheinfelden and Witten)–and the subsequent purchases of Röhm GmbH (1989, methacrylates) and Stockhausen GmbH (1991, superabsorbents) reshaped the company and aligned it toward specialty chemicals production.

Since the factory was built in a rural area and attracted some three thousand families to Marl between 1938 and 1940 alone, the company was challenged to create new social gathering facilities, some of which still exist today. Thus, the Feierabendhaus initially was a social meeting place used almost exclusively by Hüls employees that offered restaurants, cinemas, theater productions, concerts, and educational presentations. Today, the structure serves as the Marl Chemical Park’s hospitality facility and as a conference center for Evonik Industries. “Company-owned clubs” continue to exist as sports clubs with facilities of their own, as the Musical Association of Marl, with its chorus and orchestra, and as a company chorus.

Hüls in the 1990s

Even after 1979, when Hüls AG operated multiple sites (Herne, Scholven, Bottrop, Witten, Troisdorf, Lülsdorf, Rheinfelden, and Steyerberg), Marl dominated as the largest site and the headquarters of the business management and all departments. This changed with the addition of Röhm (1989) and Stockhausen (1991), which retained their own organizational structure. For example, silica chemicals moved its business headquarters to Düsseldorf. After another round of restructuring, Hüls AG became an internationally active management holding with worldwide subsidiaries on January 1, 1998. Together with Degussa AG, it continued its focus on specialty chemicals after the merger into Degussa-Hüls AG in February 1999. In 1998, the Marl site became a "chemical park" and is now operated by a subsidiary, Infracor GmbH. The site is still home to other companies that manufacture and market former Hüls products. Thus, SASOL Corp. produces surfactants; Ineos Styrenics makes polystyrene, and Vestolit GmbH manufactures polyvinyl chloride.