Through it all, three characteristics have remained consistent: the spirit of entrepreneurship, a dedication to innovation and careful nurturing of a system of values. These traits have created the company that Hydro is today.
The journey began in 1903, when two Norwegians, entrepreneur Sam Eyde and professor and inventor Kristian Birkeland, created a method for using electricity to capture nitrogen from the atmosphere.
This was part of an industrial revolution, which ironically had stimulated global population growth, but had yet to create an adequate industrial farming system. Using Norway’s vast potential for hydroelectric power, nitrogen-based industrial fertilizers could be created relatively easily and at a reasonable cost.
When Hydro was established in 1905, Norway had just won its sovereignty, but was nevertheless among the poorest countries in Europe.
Hydro's share capital was mostly French, some Swedish and only to a small degree Norwegian. The Swedish industrialist and banker Marcus Wallenberg became the company's first chairman of the board, a position he held for 37 years. Hydro quickly became one of Norway’s first industrial giants.
In the early years, Hydro's industrial activities, as well as its power production, were concentrated in Telemark. But new challenges came in the form of the First World War, trade barriers and depressed markets. In the mid-1920s, it was also necessary for Hydro to let external technology replace its original – but no longer competitive – proprietary technology to produce the company's key product, ammonium. The times of depression in the 1930s were equally turbulent for Hydro.
The Second World War brought new challenges to Hydro, as Norway was occupied by Germany and many Hydro facilities were damaged by Allied attacks. The most famous of these was the Telemark sabotage mission of 1943, closing down a German-operated “heavy water” facility in Hydro’s plant at Rjukan.
Following the war, Hydro was free again and set off on an aggressive rebuilding program. The company evolved into a modern post-war industrial conglomerate, with new businesses in plastics, petroleum and light metals. In the 1970s, Hydro began to expand internationally.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Hydro further expanded its petroleum and aluminium activities. In 2004, the fertilizer and industrial gas businesses were established as an independent company, Yara International.
More change was yet to come. The circle closed in 2007, when Hydro took one of the boldest steps in its restructuring process, merging its oil and gas operations with Statoil.
What remained was the new Hydro: a global, integrated aluminium company.