In the four decades before the First World War, the world increasingly globalized. A highly connected economy integrated distant parts of the world into one global market. Belgium, a young industrialized state, was actively participating in foreign trade and foreign direct investment. Taking Edouard Empain and his multinational enterprises as a case allows me to investigate the possibilities and determinants of success of business groups from a small open economy. While studies on the group’s activities in particular countries exist, a worldwide approach is needed to fully grasp the group’s four main characteristics.
First, this dissertation focuses on the economies of scale and scope. Through strategic investments, Empain developed a business empire active in the construction and operation of railroads and tramways. In connection, the group also produced and distributed electricity and manufactured electrical equipment. The Empain companies functioned as a vertically integrated group of operating companies, banks and holdings. Secondly, the structure of the business group influenced the success of the companies. Holding companies could spread the risk, finance the weaker subsidiaries and bundle strategic competences. Thirdly, I study the role of personal networks in securing profitable investment opportunities. What impact did Empain’s connections with politicians, businessmen and state officials have? Finally, Empain operated in a context of increasing nationalism and imperialism. Did these tensions bother him or could he take advantage of them? Originally from a small power such as Belgium, but active in 13 countries, Empain used the group’s “ambiguous multinational identity” to mitigate political risk.