An In-depth View of A Silent Giant
November 9, 1992
By Bruce Edwards
If silence is golden, then Pluess Staufer has the Midas touch. The Swiss-based company that purchased Vermont Marble Company in 1976 has a reputation for keeping a low profile, and officials bristle at any attempt to find out anything but the most basic information about the 108-year-old company. But going out of its way to avoid publicity hasn't kept the multi-national company from quietly becoming the world leader in the field of calcium carbonate and the Schachenmann family from becoming one of the world's wealthiest. In addition, the company's activities go far beyond the mining and manufacture of calcium carbonate -- the crushed marble, limestone and chalk filler material used in a variety of paper, paint and plastic products. The company is also an importer, exporter and distributor of dozens of other products and raw materials with a heavy concentration on chemicals and pharmaceuticals.
Repeated requests for interviews with Pluess Staufer officials both here and at the company's headquarters in Oftringen, Switzerland, have been denied. However, through limited information provided by the company as well as information obtained from government and private sources in the U.S. and Europe, a picture has emerged of a company whose vast holdings extend around the world.
The Schachenmann Empire
Financial data gleaned from several sources show that in 1991 the Swiss company reported consolidated sales from its worldwide operations in more than $1.35 billion, a 5.2 percent increase from 1990. However, the company only reported a profit of $8 million, an increase of approximately $400,000 over 1990. The relatively modest profit is based on sales from Pluess Staufer AG, the parent company, and apparently does not include profits from its several subsidiaries. Harold Seneker, a senior editor with Forbes magazine, said the relatively small profit doesn't reflect the company's true profitability. The use of certain accounting practices that are commonplace among Swiss companies masks a company's true earnings. "They are a good deal more profitable than they show," Seneker said, quoting the opinion of a Swiss earning banker. Seneker estimated the company's annual earnings in the $49 million range.
Pluess Staufer Industries, the U.S. subsidiary based in Proctor that "includes among its subsidiaries OMYA (calcium carbonate) and Vermont Marble, has annual sales believed to be in the neighborhood of $44 million. Sales for Vermont Marble alone are estimated to be roughly $25 million. At the end of 1990, the company employed 3,454 workers worldwide including 600 in Switzerland and 500 in the United States. However, the company's U.S. employment now may be less than that with 22 workers laid off earlier this year at Vermont Marble in Proctor and the announcement last month that the company would close its OMYA grinding works in New Haven, throwing as many as 32 people out of work by the end of the year.
Over the years, Pluess Staufer's owners, Max H. Schachenmann and his family, have become one of the wealthiest families in the world. In 1989 and 1990, Schachenmann made Fortune magazine's billionaire's list with a net worth of $1 billion. However, his worth apparently has declined somewhat because he has not made the magazine's list in the past two years. Forbes' Seneker conservatively estimated Schachenmann's current net worth at $600 million. He said Forbes arrived at that figure while the magazine was compiling its annual list of the world's wealthiest families and individuals. However, since Schachenmann's wealth was less than $1 billion, he did not make the annual billionaire list that appeared in the magazine's July 20 edition.
The current president and chairman of the board of the privately held company is Max Andre Schachenmann, the great grandson of the company's founder, Gottfried Pluess, who died in 1936. However, it was Schachenmann's father, 77-year-old Max H. Schachenmann, who is credited with the growth of the company since the end World War II. The senior Schachenmann also has a younger son and a daughter.
According to the London based Industrial Minerals magazine, Pluess Staufer has mines and processing plants in 15 countries: France, United Kingdom, Germany, Norway, Finland, Austria, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Turkey, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, United States and Canada. It sold its Brazilian operation in 1970. In the United States, Pluess Staufer Industries based in Proctor is the U.S. subsidiary. OMYA in Florence is a division of Pluess Staufer, followed by several other subsidiaries, including Vermont Marble and the little known Protexulate, Inc. in Proctor which makes underground pipe protection material. Other U.S. subsidiaries are Pluess Staufer, Inc. (California) and F.E. Gates Company of Indianapolis, Ind., a concrete contractor. The company also has marketing offices in Stamford, Conn., for Pluess Staufer International, Inc.
According to information obtained by the Herald, Pluess Staufer is involved in either the import, export or distribution of hundreds of products and raw materials. The extensive list includes synthetic resins, petroleum products, barium, boron, selenium, strontium, potassium, iodine, barbiturates, anti-biotics, explosives, synthetic dyes, fungicides, compressed and liquefied gases, pharmaceutical preparations, photographic chemicals, chemicals for cosmetics, soaps, waxes, office equipment, toys, glassware and food additives.
The company is also involved in a joint venture with Georgia Marble Company to build a "multi-million dollar" ground calcium carbonate plant in Sylacauga, Alabama, according to a July 1990 article in Chemical Marketing Reporter. The plant opened a few months ago, according to a Georgia Marble spokesman. A Pluess Staufer official at the plant in Alabama declined to say when the plant had opened. The same industry publication reported in October 1990 that Pluess Staufer had reached an agreement with the Hall Company of Ohio to market and distribute its products in Europe. Hall is a major producer of metal-based products specializing in cobalt, nickel and manganese.
Pluess Staufer was founded on August 4, 1884 in Oftringen (30 miles west of Zurich, and with a population of 9,189) by Gottfried Pluess on the same day he married Emma Staufer, a baker's daughter. Pluess, who had operated a trading products business for the paint industry as well as running a linseed oil kitchen, began making glazier's putty as a way to "relieve glaziers and carpenters of the tedious task of making putty (themselves)," according to a privately published history of the company marking its 100th anniversary in 1984. Linseed oil and chalk whiting were the primary ingredients of the putty, but since no suitable whiting was available in Switzerland, Pluess found the needed material in France. This resulted in the purchase of a whiting works in 1891. A few years later, he bought land in Omey, in northern France, for a chalk quarry that today remains the company's largest calcium carbonate facility.
OMYA, the Pluess Staufer subsidiary got its name from the Omyats, the residents of Omey, the company says in its history. The company expanded over the years with a grinding works established in Strasbourg, Germany, in 1913. World War I proved to be a setback for the company, and its operations in France and Germany were disrupted for long periods. After the war, Pluess Staufer resumed its rapid expansion in Europe, including the opening of a sales office in Paris and a whiting works in Germany. In 1939, OMYA Shipping Agency, Ltd. was founded in Antwerp, Belgium.
World War II disrupted the company's business again and its facilities in France and Germany were severely damaged. The company noted "in 1935, a new whiting factory had been built in Cologne (Germany) -- this was completely destroyed in 1943 during a massive air attack by the British Air Force."
After the War
Following the war, the company set about to rebuild its primary business and at the same time increase its chemical trading business. In 1949, Pluess Staufer signed an agreement with Heochst AG, the giant German chemical company, as the exclusive Swiss distributor. Pluess Staufer also had similar agreements with more than 50 foreign manufacturers in 11 countries, according to the company's 1984 history. But Pluess Staufer's relationship with Hoechst is a special one in that Switzerland is the only country where Hoechst doesn't market its own products, Pluess Staufer touts in its history. (Hoechst was one of the several companies that comprised the notorious German conglomerate known as I.G. Farben during World War II, according to Aaron Breitbart, a researcher with the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. However, Peter Hayes, a history professor at Northwestern University and the author of "Industry and Ideology" noted that Hoechst was the least involved of the Farben companies that engaged in war crimes.)
In 1967, Pluess Staufer and Hoechst entered into a joint pharmaceutical venture in Switzerland called Hoechst-Pharme AG. Pluess Staufer and Hoechst-Pharme share an office building in Zurich called OMYA-Haus which is occupied by another Pluess Staufer subsidiary, Ozalid AG, a supplier of copying equipment and office systems. Still another subsidiary, Sintco AG specializes in food products for humans and animals.
The post-war years also saw the company expand its interests overseas, including the United States. It also built a new factory in Oftringen to manufacture synthetic resins, textile additives and synthetic detergent and expanded its primary whiting works in Omey.
"Particularly interesting was the acquisition in 1976 of the long-established Vermont Marble Company, which had been founded in 1870 at Proctor, Vermont," the company history says. It pointed out that the acquisition of Vermont Marble marked the beginning of Pluess Staufer's filler manufacturing operation in the U.S. The company later acquired a limestone operation in Lucerne Valley, California. According to Rico Carisch, a freelance business writer who has done work for Fortune magazine, the senior Schachenmann flew the owner of Vermont Marble from Switzerland to Barcelona for dinner aboard his private plane. The two-hour flight in Schachenmann's airplane and his effusive personality were enough to cement the deal, Carisch said.
The sale of Vermont Marble included its quarries, the power division, various commercial and residential properties and several subsidiary companies including White Pigment Corp in Florence, which is now known as OMYA. Although no sale price was disclosed at the time, the Herald recently learned that Pluess Staufer paid the Proctor family trusts and about 90 stockholders between $7 million and $10 million for the company, according to sources familiar with the sale who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Obsession with Secrecy
For years, Pluess Staufer has shrouded itself in secrecy - releasing very little financial information. Several sources familiar with the minerals industry and the way overseas companies operate have varying opinions on the reasons for the company's attitude. Anant Sundaram, associate professor of business at the Tuck School at Dartmouth College, said Pluess Staufer's desire for privacy "is extremely common all over Europe with the exception of the United Kingdom." Sundaram said it was particularly true in Switzerland, where financial disclosure is minimal. "Historically, it goes back to the way corporations have developed (in Europe)," he said.
A September 1990 article in Industrial Minerals sheds some light on another possible reason for Pluess Staufer's secrecy. The article points out that, "The carbonate fillers industry, including both natural ground carbonate and precipitated (manufactured) calcium carbonate, is one of the most competitive sectors of industrial minerals." According to the article, there are about 25 companies in North America that produce both types of calcium carbonate, with the precipitated market dominated entirely by Pfizer. (Pfizer recently sold its majority interest in its specialty minerals operations. The new stand-alone company is known as Minerals Technology, Inc. of which Pfizer retains a minority interest.)
In Europe there are roughly 45 to 50 companies with Pluess Staufer and ECC PLC of Great Britain, the two dominant European players in the ground carbonate market. However, others say that by European standards - often even for a privately held company - Pluess Staufer's obsession with privacy appears to go beyond the norm. In fact, one source who requested anonymity said that although Switzerland was known for its lack of financial disclosure, Pluess Staufer's tight-lipped attitude appeared unusual. "They really are very secretive," the source said.
Another possible motive put forward by someone familiar with the company is that by keeping a low profile, Pluess Staufer has been able to quietly acquire properties around the world. In July, when the Herald requested an interview with company officials for a feature article, Pluess Staufer officials declined. Similar requests made to the company's Swiss headquarters were also denied. However, the company did provide a two-page synopsis of its history.
The cloak of secrecy also extends beyond the company. Several sources for this article spoke only on condition of anonymity out of concern Pluess Staufer officials would be offended. Even the mayor of Oftringen was reluctant to discuss the company, but he did send the Herald a one-page letter stating that the community regards the company as a good corporate citizen. While the competitive nature of the business along with the Swiss business tradition of keeping financial information private undoubtly plays a part in the company's desire for privacy, Carisch may have pinpointed another reason: Schachenmann's refusal through the years to be interviewed simply may stem from the fact that he dislikes reporters and photographers.
A profile that accompanied Fortune's 1989 billionaire's list had this to say about the senior Schachenmann: " ... speaks fluent German, French, English, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese ... winter in Arizona ... three times Swiss hang gliding champion."
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