Beyond Belgium : the business empire of Edouard Empain in the First Global Economy (1880-1914)
By looking through the lens of a global entrepreneur, this dissertation provides insight into a crucial period in world history: the First Global Economy (1870-1914). To tackle the broader issue of the opportunities and limitations in a paradoxical world of economic globalization and political fragmentation, I take an actor-centered approach. The history of the business empire of the Belgian Edouard Empain (1852-1929) elucidates a complex era characterized by globalization and nation-state formation. By focusing on an entrepreneur originating from a small country but transcending boundaries, the possibilities and risks for international business in this period can be studied. Starting in 1880, the business group of Edouard Empain developed into one of the largest in Belgium and became a global player active on four continents. The Empain group mainly invested in public utilities such as transportation and electricity production as well as in electrical engineering. Within this context, this dissertation answers the following question: What strategies did a multinational enterprise from a small country adopt to seize the opportunities and handle the risks of a world characterized by both economic integration and geopolitical rivalry at a global scale? I argue that, to understand the development of international business in the First Global Economy, we need to acknowledge the importance of the following three domains: the geographical and sectoral strategy, the corporate structure, and the business-government relations. To address these issues, this dissertation uses a wide array of archival sources and secondary literature. It combines a comprehensive approach of the more than eighty Empain companies with selected case studies to understand the dynamics of international business. This allows me to argue that Empain developed strategies in the three abovementioned domains to transform the global economic and political challenges into opportunities. First, his investments were the result of an entrepreneurial logic combined with the pursuit of economies of scale and scope. Secondly, the business group form had many advantages, making it an efficient device for investments in the First Global Economy. Thirdly, thanks to the complex interplay between the multinational enterprise, the home country and the host countries, an entrepreneur from a small country could exploit the international political frictions of the late nineteenth-century world to develop a global business empire.