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Nordstjernan's history

1890s: Founding of the shipping company

Nordstjernan’s founder, Axel Johnson (1844–1910), was born into a family of saddlers in Jönköping, Sweden. As a young man, he made his way to Stockholm where he worked his way up in a silk company, all the while teaching himself English and German business correspondence. In the 1870s, he ran his own company, which imported coal and exported iron. He quickly became successful.

A shipping company was the natural next step as Axel Johnson continued to develop his business. Using the money he had earned trading shares, he acquired the small three-masted steamship Annie Thérèse, named after his wife. Nordstjernan was founded on May 19, 1890 when the vessel was converted into a company. The business grew rapidly. By the early 1900s, Nordstjernan had become one of Sweden’s leading shipping companies.

1900s: Creation of the La Plata Line

At the turn of the century, Brazil was producing approximately 90 percent of the coffee consumed worldwide. A group of German and British shipowners known as the Coffee Conference controlled all coffee transport from Brazil to Europe. In 1905, as a way of entering the market, Nordstjernan started a new route known as the La Plata Line between Gothenburg and Buenos Aires – the only port available in South America with Brazil’s ports off limits. Instead of the name Nordstjernan, which was difficult to pronounce for people outside Sweden, the name “Johnson Line” was used. This is why the ship flag still used today as Nordstjernan’s symbol features a “J”.

Five years later, the La Plata Line was firmly established. Axel Johnson presented the German shipowners with an ultimatum: allow Johnson Line into the Coffee Conference or face a price war. In a development that would have a major impact on its continued economic expansion, Nordstjernan was allowed to ship coffee – mainly to the Scandinavian markets. Some 20 years after its modest start, Nordstjernan was now a major transatlantic shipping company.

1910s: Driven by new technology

Axel Ax:son Johnson (1876-1958), or the Consul General as he came to be known after inheriting his father’s position as Consul General of Siam (now Thailand) in Sweden took over after his father’s death in 1910. He didn’t have a good start as the head of his father’s corporate group as he embarked on a venture to merge two shipbuilding companies – Bergsunds Mekaniska Verkstad and Motala Mekaniska Verkstad.
The venture went awry and it took until the 1940s for him to incorporate a shipyard into his business group.

Axel’s next project was also grand and visionary – but decidedly more successful. When the diesel-powered cargo ship Suecia was ordered in 1911, Nordstjernan became a pioneer in the transition from steam to diesel power for ocean-going cargo vessels. Not only did diesel engines require less manpower than steam engines, the fuel also took up less of the vessels’ valuable cargo space. Nordstjernan adopted the new technology and sold its old vessels before its rival shipping companies had realized what was happening.

The early years of the First World War were a time of prosperity for the growing shipping company from the neutral country of Sweden. Freight rates soared and the money was rolling in. However, in 1917, Germany launched its so-called unrestricted submarine warfare – attacking merchant vessels without warning, in contravention of the prevailing conventions of the time – and the North Sea was closed. The situation nevertheless improved following the negotiation of trade agreements with Germany and the UK.

1920s: Hub of a growing group

After the end of the war, Nordstjernan continued to replace its older fleet with newly produced vessels. The early 1920s saw the establishment of new routes, most notably the so-called Pacific Lines to the west coast of North and South America via the Panama Canal. The west coast of North America was home to an expansive market for Swedish goods as well as cheap oil and diesel.

Avesta Jernverk, acquired in 1904, became one of the world’s most successful specialist steel manufacturers through systematic development of new alloys and production methods. The company’s steel was used to build vessels bearing the Nordstjernan flag, which would ship more steel across the world and return with import goods. To reduce Nordstjernan’s dependency on foreign diesel suppliers, Sweden’s first refinery was built in Nynäshamn in 1928. This, in turn, resulted in the establishment of Nynäs gas stations and investments in the Linjebuss bus company. To supply the refinery with raw materials, tankers were added to Nordstjernan’s fleet.

One of the by-products from the refinery was the bonding agent bitumen, which is used in asphalt. The formation of Svenska Vägaktiebolaget and Nya Asfalt marked Nordstjernan’s entrance into the construction and civil engineering industry. The two companies were eventually merged. NCC’s roots can be traced to this time via Johnson Construction Company (JCC) and Armerad Betong Vägförbättringar (ABV).

1930s: Continued expansion

During the 1930s, Nordstjernan continued to grow. The company’s expansion was governed by two fundamental ideas. The first was self-sufficiency. The Consul General’s various companies operated in related value chains and supplied one another with goods and services. The second was to ensure the company’s competitiveness by maintaining a technological edge. The Consul General believed that to be worth investing in, a company must either have a unique product or a unique production method. It must also have the ability and resources to develop its products and production methods to remain competitive in the long term.

1940s: New opportunities and new owners

In April 1940, Germany established the so-called Skagerack blockade, which effectively eliminated Sweden’s access to the world’s oceans. Sweden eventually negotiated an agreement to allow a few of Nordstjernan’s vessels safe passage through the area for the remainder of the war.

Nordstjernan lost ten vessels during the war. A total of 128 crewmen lost their lives. Yet at the end of the war, Nordstjernan had 24 vessels – more than it had when the war broke out.

In the 1940s, the Consul General’s business group was further strengthened through the acquisition of the Lindholmens Varv shipyard in Gothenburg. During the same period, the company added a number of engineering companies to its roster, including Karlstads Mekaniska Werkstad/Kamewa and its world-famous propellers.

In 1947, the Consul General decided in his will to donate 80 percent of the capital in Nordstjernan to a foundation for public benefit, to primarily promote science, and a minor share of the capital to a family foundation. The family foundation was given the multiple-vote
shares in Nordstjernan. On August 3, 1958, the will and donation entered into force.

1950s: New management – unchanged strategy

In the 1950s, the shipping company continued its expansion. A fourth line, known as the Far East Line, was established and several new vessels were ordered. The Consul General’s oldest son, Axel Ax:son Johnson (1910–1988), often referred to as the Mining Engineer, had spent the war years and a period after the war in the US. Following his return home in 1952, he gradually began to take over the role as CEO of Nordstjernan. His younger brother Bo Ax:son Johnson (1917–1997) returned from overseas during the same period and became CEO of Nynäs Petroleum.

1960s: Eastward bound

Upon the Consul General’s death in 1958, his business group comprised some 100 companies in Sweden and abroad with a total of 22,000 employees and annual sales of SEK 1.4 billion.

Mining Engineer Axel Ax:son Johnson succeeded his father as Chairman of Nordstjernan. The strategy was to expand and internationalize Nordstjernan’s existing companies.

The first wave of digitization moved to Sweden from the US in the early 1960s and the computer company Datema was founded in 1964 to provide the entire group with administrative data processing services.

Relations were developed with the Soviet Union, which was undergoing a period of “thaw” under the leadership of Nikita Khrushchev. Opportunities were opening up to purchase oil and coal, and Lindholmens Varv began accepting Soviet orders. Nordstjernan and Salénrederierna merged their fruit and vegetable import businesses and established JS Saba. In the late 1960s, Nordstjernan began to shift its focus to container traffic – once again acting as a pioneer in the conservative shipping industry.
In 1966, the company ordered four container vessels at a very high price and amid uncertain demand. But the gamble paid off.

1970s: Economic downturn and oil crisis

The economic upturn seen in the wake of the war tapered off toward the end of the 1960s. Nordstjernan’s smaller engineering companies were having trouble keeping up with the major international manufacturers in areas ranging from marine engines to paper machinery.

This economic downturn was exacerbated when the oil crisis hit in 1973. All of Nordstjernan’s operations were impacted – shipping, engineering, oil and steel. The company was forced to abandon its cardinal principal of total independence. It began discussing the possibility of listing parts of the Group in order to gain access to external risk capital.

In the mid-1970s, Nordstjernan acquired a block of shares in Stockholms Rederi AB Svea, which in turn owned one-third of the ferry operator Silja Line. Over time, Silja Line would expand to become a core business for Nordstjernan.

1980s: Major changes

In spring 1979, Bo Ax:son Johnson took over management of Nordstjernan. As time went on, control of the operations was divided so that Bo assumed responsibility for the foundation-owned Nordstjernan, and the Mining Engineer continued operations in A. Johnson & Co (now Axel Johnson AB), which had been wholly owned by him since 1961 after Bo had sold his 50 percent of the shares.

In 1982, Svenska Väg and Nya Asfalt were merged to form Johnson Construction Company (JCC). At around the same time, Nordstjernan sold JS Saba to the Swedish financier Erik Penser, although Nordstjernan retained ownership of the NK department store. A few years later, Saba was acquired by A. Johnson & Co.

At this point, Nordstjernan assumed responsibility for reaching an agreement in the Swedish alloy steel industry through Avesta’s acquisition of parts of Fagersta, Uddeholm and Sandvik in 1984. Despite these and other business dealings, Nordstjernan continued to grow rapidly and remained difficult to manage, and many of its businesses were struggling when it came to profitability. Following extensive strategy work, it was decided that significant structural changes were needed and that an external CEO would be brought in to implement this new plan.

Bernt Magnusson was selected, with experience from various companies including Swedish Match. He took over as CEO in the beginning of 1985. Nordstjernan was now being transformed from a conglomerate of operating companies in a wide range of industries into a diverse investment company combining wholly owned businesses with blocks of shares in listed companies. Some 180 of the 380 legal entities owned by Nordstjernan were sold in the ensuing years after Bernt Magnusson took over.

To ensure access to risk capital, Nordstjernan began to diversify its ownership base. Nordstjernan was split into two companies: Nordstjernan I and II. Nordstjernan I became the Parent Company of Nordstjernan II, where essentially all of the company’s operating assets were placed. The companies began to streamline their operations, focusing on shipping, engineering and construction operations. Nordstjernan II was listed on the stock exchange in 1988, with Nordstjernan I as its principal owner.

Avesta was listed in 1987 and later merged with a division of British Steel under the name Avesta Sheffield. The sale of the Group’s shares in Avesta Sheffield in 1994 marked the end of an era. In addition to Avesta, four other companies were listed on the stock exchange: Databolin (1987), NK (1987), Silja Line (1990) and Linjebuss (1992).

1990s: Focus on the construction industry

In the late 1980s, the Board of Nordstjernan II decided to focus on a single core operation – the construction industry. And the Group certainly had a long history to build on. Strå Kalkbruk was acquired in 1915, Nya Asfalt was formed in 1928 and Svenska Väg in 1930. In 1985, the construction industry accounted for 30 percent of Nordstjernan’s sales. Nordic Construction Company (NCC) was formed in 1988 through the merger of JCC and Armerad Betong Vägförbättringar (ABV).

Much of the capital freed up through the sale and listing of these companies was invested in the hottest industry of the 1980s – real estate. This marked the beginning of yet another turbulent period in the company’s history. In 1989, Nordstjernan II was merged with its largest subsidiary, NCC, under the name NCC. Nordstjernan I was under the leadership of veteran businessman Bertil Hansson. NCC faced significant pressure during the construction and property crisis of the early 1990s, but was able to achieve its goal of becoming one of the leading construction companies in the Nordic region thanks to the acquisition of SIAB in spring 1997.

At the general meeting of shareholders in 1997, Bo Ax:son Johnson left Nordstjernan’s Board of Directors after 50 years with the company. Following his death a month later, he was succeeded by his daughter Viveca Ax:son Johnson (born in 1963). Cousins Antonia Ax:son Johnson (born in 1943) and Viveca Ax:son Johnson now assumed responsibility for Nordstjernan. Johan Björkman (1944–2007), who also served as Chairman of Stenbeck company Invik and the Third Swedish Pension Insurance Fund, was elected to the Board of Nordstjernan along with Marcus Storch, former CEO of AGA. Johan Björkman was also appointed as Chairman of Nordstjernan.

2000s: Fresh start

In 1999, Nordstjernan’s new Board of Directors appoints Tomas Billing as CEO. He had previously served as CEO of the property company Hufvudstaden. Nordstjernan comprised a large block of shares in NCC, the building at Stureplan, a smaller building on Karlavägen, Engelsberg Ironworks and Avesta Manor. Tomas Billing prioritized two things: improving profitability in NCC and ensuring that Nordstjernan did not have all its eggs in one basket.

The strategy of the new Board of Directors and management continued to build on Nordstjernan’s industrial heritage and extensive experience of owning and developing companies. A new business concept was established: “Nordstjernan is an investment company that creates long-term value growth through active ownership of companies with head offices in the Nordic region.”

The first decade of the new millennium was mainly characterized by investments in medium-sized companies with growth potential. Over a ten-year period, Nordstjernan acquired KMT (machines for waterjet cutting and precision grinding), Exel Composites (carbon fiber and fiberglass products), Välinge (flooring systems), Ramirent (equipment hire), Active Biotech (biotechnology), GP Plastindustri/Rosti Group (plastic components), Sirius Machinery (tubefilling and feed equipment), Etac (products for mobility-impaired individuals), Salcomp (mobile phone chargers), Ekornes (furniture) and WinGroup/Sunparadise (glazing products).

During this time, Tomas Billing gradually built up his management team. Among other, Nordstjernan recruited Peter Hofvenstam, Angela Langemar Olsson, Mats Heiman, Nora F. Larssen and Lars Lindgren. Upon Johan Björkman’s death in 2007, he was succeeded as Nordstjernan’s Chairman by Viveca Ax:son Johnson.

2010s: Continuity and growth

In the 2010s, Nordstjernan continued along its established path, investing in both unlisted and listed companies with head offices in the Nordic region. The decade began with the acquisition of 20 percent of the shares in the kitchen manufacturer Nobia, making Nordstjernan the company’s largest shareholder.

Nordstjernan also carried out divestments, including the sale of Välinge in 2011, KMT in 2013 and nearly half of its holding in Salcomp in 2013. As part of its role as a long-term owner, Nordstjernan aims to sell its companies when more value can be created through other ownership constellations. Divestments also free up capital for new investments.

In conjunction with the stock market listing of the care company Attendo in 2015, Nordstjernan became one of its largest shareholders. Nordstjernan’s largest listed holding, NCC, was converted into two listed companies following the spin-off and listing of the Housing business area under the name Bonava in 2016. Nordstjernan also carried out more investments between 2012 and 2016, including Llentab (multifunctional steel buildings), Bygghemma (e-commerce within building products and home furnishing), Swedol (retailer of tools and workwear to the professional market), PMC Group/Dacke Industri (hydraulics solutions) and PriceRunner (independent price comparison site). Bygghemma was divested in 2016.

In 2015, Nordstjernan’s business area for share investments in listed and unlisted companies was supplemented by the formation of Nordstjernan Credit, headed by Thomas Naess. Nordstjernan Credit invests in higher-yielding corporate loans, bonds and preferred equity instruments.

At the 2016 Annual General Meeting, Antonia Ax:son Johnson stepped down from Nordstjernan’s Board of Directors after 34 years and was succeeded by her daughter Caroline Berg.

At the end of 2017, Nordstjernan acquired a majority of the shares in Lideta, which engages in primary care and occupational health care. Early in 2018, Lideta acquired Mama Mia, which provides maternity and child health care services, and acquired the Primary Care business area from Aleris a year later.

In 2018, Nordstjernan became by far the largest shareholder in Swedol through the acquisition of most of the shares held by Swedol’s second largest shareholder at the time, and thereafter made a public offer to Swedol’s shareholders. In addition, Nordstjernan became one of the largest stakeholders in the property company Diös in 2018–2019.

At Nordstjernan’s Annual General Meeting in May 2019, Tomas Billing stepped down from the position of CEO after 20 years. Peter Hofvenstam, who was Deputy CEO for nearly 20 years, took over as CEO.

In the summer of 2019, Nordstjernan’s wholly owned subsidiary Etac acquired 70 percent of the shares in the US company HoverTech International, a leading manufacturer of air-assisted patient handling technologies. The acquisition strengthens Etac’s global position as a supplier in the area of patient handling. The transaction is also in line with Nordstjernan’s ambition to build a stronger presence in health and medical care.

At the same time, during the last two years of the 2010s, Nordstjernan concentrated its ownership on larger, and slightly fewer, companies. This reduces complexity and frees up time that can be used to identify new investment candidates. In 2018, Nordstjernan sold its entire holding in furniture company Ekornes, after a decade as the company’s largest shareholder, by accepting the Chinese furniture company Qumei’s public offer for all of the shares in Ekornes.

One year later, Nordstjernan negotiated an offer for all of the shares in Ramirent from the French equipment leasing company Loxam, with a substantial premium. Nordstjernan, which has been the principal owner of Ramirent since the company acquired NCC’s spun-off equipment leasing company Altima in 2004, accepted the offer.

In 2019, Nordstjernan also divested its remaining holdings in Salcomp to Chinese company Lingyi iTech. The transaction was conducted jointly with the Sixth Swedish National Pension Fund, which was Salcomp’s other owner.

2020s: New strategy and organization

In 2019, Nordstjernan became the largest shareholder in Momentum Group, one of the leading Nordic resellers of industrial consumables and industrial components. In November 2019, Momentum Group submitted a recommended public takeover bid to the shareholders of Swedol. Nordstjernan facilitated the transaction by accepting a consideration in the form of newly issued shares in Momentum Group. The offer was completed in March 2020, after which Swedol became a wholly owned subsidiary of Momentum Group. The transaction facilitated a merger of Momentum Group’s TOOLS business area and Swedol. After the merger, Nordstjernan became a principal owner in Momentum Group, with a holding of slightly more than 50 percent of both the capital and voting rights.

In November 2020, Nordstjernan submitted a public takeover bid to the shareholders of Momentum Group. Owners of nearly 3 percent of the shares accepted the offer.

The concentration of ownership continued during the first year of the 2020s through the divestment of holdings in, for example, PriceRunner and Nordic Nest.

In 2020, the first major review of Nordstjernan’s strategy since 1999 was conducted. In November, a new sector-focused organization, in which Nordstjernan’s investment operations are organized into the three business areas, Nordstjernan Investment (investments in listed and unlisted companies in the Industry & Trade, Health and Construction & Real estate sectors), Nordstjernan Growth (investments in the Growth & New Technology sector) and Nordstjernan Credit (investments in corporate loans, bonds and preferred equity instruments).

In accordance with the new strategy, Nordstjernan invests in market-leading companies with sustainable competitive advantages in sectors with strong structural market trends, where Nordstjernan has expertise and a strong network. The newly started business area, Nordstjernan Growth, invests in competitive, rapidly expanding growth companies with the potential to be leaders in their respective areas of operation. Nordstjernan Growth is a long-term active and attractive partner to owners, contractors and company management teams in order to scale up the companies’ operations and accelerate their growth.

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