Trading as an ancillary activity
The company took its name [UTC International] in 1921, although its origins go back to 1859.
The business was founded as a type of subsidiary of the ‘Basler Mission’, which was a mission established in British India and in what is today Ghana at the beginning of the 19th century, in order to spread the word of God.
The mission’s founders were a small group of families that belonged to the great Protestant bourgeoisie of Basle and the central objective of the new company was to support the missionaries’ evangelical efforts.
The distribution of profits among the shareholders was, therefore, limited, with the main part handed over to the Basler Mission and/or reinvested in the country.
The company remained under the influence of its religious origins up until 1909 when the business was reorganised so that commercial logic superseded religious influence. It was, however, several decades before the religious aspect disappeared completely and is important to note that UTC is still controlled by the same founder families today.
In Ghana, UTC quickly became both one of the main importers and distributors of manufactured products, and also exporters of local products (rubber and palm).
More important still: cocoa farming, apparently introduced to the country by the Basle firm, expanded greatly from the end of the nineteenth century. By 1910 Ghana was the largest producer of cocoa in the world and a considerable proportion of it was exported by UTC.
In India, the results were less spectacular. The company failed to make inroads into the trading business and its diversification into industrial activities –spinning and especially brick making- whilst thriving, were in no way as successful as the African undertakings.
Indeed, in 1910 the volume of business in India is estimated to have been hardly more than a quarter of that in Ghana (loan prospectus issued by the Missions-Handlungs-Gesellschaft, 7 February 1912, Wirtschaftsarchiv Basle).
Rice traders in 1861 in Sri Lanka
Courtesy of Basel Mission Archives
Ups and downs of a global trading organisation
The First World War delivered an extremely hard blow to the Basel company. Accused by the British colonial authorities of being favourable to Germany, all of its firms and property in Ghana and in India were confiscated, UTC was on the brink of bankruptcy. Whilst the company’s activities in India were never restored, it did recuperate a part of its possessions in Ghana thanks to the continual intervention of the Swiss government. This, in 1921, the company was once more active and, because the majority of the local staff had remained loyal to UTC, the company quickly returned to successful business in Ghana. From this success UTC went on to found subsidiaries in London, Hamburg and New York, and also became established in Nigeria.
The last expansion was decisive, and the importation of manufactured goods to Nigeria grew considerably from the end of the Second World War. Moreover, the business literally “took off” from 1973 when the price of petroleum quadrupled, earing massively increased revenues for this large African country. Between 1973 and 1982 the yearly sales of UTC in Nigeria increased from 150 million in constant francs to 1.5 billion (Dokumentation-Erklärung von Bern, no. 5, 1986; Basler Zeitung, 23 March 1995).
This windfall induced the Basel company to embark on an unrestrained policy of diversification: in production, retail trade, real estate and various kinds of services, etc. The outcome was that in 1985, the parent company controlled roughly eighty companies which carried out between them 40 different activities (Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 21 August 1996). It is also worth noting that in 1977 UTC bought the majority of shares in Jelmoli which was a large chain of stores in Switzerland.
However, the middle of the 1980s brought a phase of stagnation, and even a decline. Following the collapse of both the local currency and the petroleum revenues, the business broke down in Nigeria. UTC management encountered many difficulties in integrating several of their new activities, especially in the case of Jelmoli. A process or reorganisation was therefore undertaken at the beginning of the 1990s (…), as the sale of Jelmoli in 1996 demonstrates.
Excerpt from The Multinational Traders, Geoffrey G Jones - 2013
In 1997 UTC International AG merged with BHG Handelsgesellschaft Basel GmbH, its parent company which counted in 1990 approximately 8,000 employees and reported sales of CHF 2.8 billion. The new group was transformed in a financial holding company with no operational activity.
UTC International was removed from the registry of Swiss companies on 20 June 2003, just over 82 years after its incorporation.