HISTORY OF SGS, SOCIÉTÉ GÉNÉRALE DE SURVEILLANCE, GENEVA

 

Reedereigeschichte Deutsch      Histoire de la compagnie SGS

The history of SGS S.A. (Société Générale de Surveillance)  with its head offices in Geneva, Switzerland goes back to the 19th century, when a young immigrant from Latvia, Mr. Henri Goldstück founded an inspection and testing company in the French port of Rouen, probably the first such company anywhere in the world.

The circumstances which led to the foundation of this globally operating inspection and testing company by a penniless, but determined young immigrant are very interesting and therefore we wish to go a bit deeper into these details, whether all happened exactly as presented or is just an entertaining tale, may be questionable:

Mr. Henri Goldstück from the Latvian harbour town of Liepaja (in German, Libau) was employed in the port to supervise the loading of bagged oats, shipped mainly via Rouen to Paris to feed the horses for the horse carts (the taxis of the time). His shippers received various complaints from the receivers in France, claiming short deliveries. As a result of these complaints Henri was immediately dismissed by his boss. Now without work and no money in the pocket, young Henri decided to emigrate and see the world. As a stowaway on board a cargo vessel he reached France and by coincidence left the ship in Rouen. Strolling around in the port, one day he found a ship, discharging oats in bags from his former employer in Latvia. He observed that many bags were torn up during discharge, the oats subsequently spilling out and being lost on the pier. Other cargo was stolen or the stevedores made some deals with the masters to enrich themselves. He noted this all down in a letter to his former employer and with some borrowed money from his Austrian friend Mr. Hainze he posted the letter to his former employers, who eventually asked him to inspect their shipments on arrival in Rouen. The losses were greatly reduced and Mr. Goldstück got more and more survey work.

On December 12, 1878 he founded with his friend Mr. Hainze the inspection company Goldstück, Hainze & Co, which flourished rapidly. After one year the company expanded and opened own offices in the French ports of Dunkerque, Le Havre and Marseille. Growth was supported by the development of innovative services in the grain trade. The company grew steadily and by the eve of World War I its network comprised 45 branches in all the major European harbours in the North Sea, the Baltic Sea, the Atlantic Coast, the Mediterranean and the Black sea. The company's head office was in Paris.

In 1915 during the World War I, the corporate headquarters were transferred from Paris to Geneva, Switzerland, where they remained until today. The company was to resume strong growth after World War I, thanks to the entrepreneurial visions of Mr. Jaques Salmanowitz, who chaired the company from 1919 until to his death in 1966. Born in Latvia in 1884 Mr. Jacques Salmanowitz emigrated with his father via France to Holland. He was barely 13 years old, when he started to work for the testing and inspection company in Rotterdam in 1896. In 1919 Mr. Salmanowitz restructured the company and on July 19, 1919 the name Société Générale de Surveillance (SGS) was registered. In 1928 it operated offices in already 21 countries and in 1939 the company expanded into the minerals, metals and raw materials inspection and testing business.

Why after WW II this company engaged in the shipping business, we do not know and we can only speculate. The archives of SGS apparently do not contain any information about this period, certainly nothing about the shipping activities. The first large ship was acquired in 1949, the steamer NADIA, a freighter of 10'440 tons deadweight, then two years later the passenger vessel SILVERSTAR. In 1952 and 1958 the company took delivery of the new buildings JULIA and HENRY G respectively. In the years 1947 until 1959 apparently a tug boat in Hamburg, named CORMORAN belonged also to the small fleet, but it appears it was managed by Control Company, Hamburg a subsidiary company of SGS, Geneva. It appears, that Control Company had also two other tug boats, the CORSAR and the SÜDAMERIKA VII, but no technical details and histories are known to us. After the death of Mr. Salmanowitz the two remaining ships JULIA and HENRI G were sold and ship owning had ceased.

The ships were technically and commercially managed from the shipping department of SGS in Geneva. Amongst the seafarers SGS was commonly called "Surveillance". According to a former radio operator, who sailed on the JULIA, the company worked closely together with an office in London to obtain work for their ships. This office was probably called Cargo Superintendents (London) Ltd., London, and apparently acted as their broker, as final decisions and instructions to the vessels were made by the head office in Geneva. The candidates for a job at sea were interviewed by a Mr. Mosimann, the head of the shipping department. He was apparently working for Schweizerische Reederei (Swiss Shipping Ltd) and/or Suisse-Outremer before. The technical manager, it was said, was a Mr. Steiger.

In 1985 the SGS went public on the Swiss stock exchange and today employs about 70'000 people in about 1350 offices around the world. Today the group's activities are inspection, testing, certification and verification in many fields from agriculture, mining, oil & gas, chemicals, energy to life science.

But also in the worldwide shipping industry SGS is well known. When a tanker loads cargo in West Africa or discharges its oil cargo in Europe, a bulk carrier loads grain in the USA or discharges ore from Australia, it is very likely that a SGS-surveyor will come on board to check on quantity and perhaps also on quality of the cargo loaded or discharged.

 

CARGO SURVEYS

As mentioned before, SGS is heavily involved in cargo surveys on board of ships all around the globe to ensure the quantity and quality of the cargo is correct. These surveys are ordered by the shippers and/or the receivers. Different surveys are carried out, depending on the type of ship:

Bulk carriers:

One particular method to establish on a bulk carrier the amount of cargo loaded or discharged is by a draft-survey, this is a procedure were the draft is taken before and after cargo loading or discharge to calculate the differences in displacements. This difference is equal to the cargo loaded or discharged.

This sounds easy, but many other factors have to be taken into account by the surveyor, such as the bunkers, consumption of bunkers during loading/discharging, freshwater, lubricating oils, crew and stores on board, also changes in trim (difference of draft fore and aft), specific gravity and temperature of the water. A ship changes draft when moving from sea to fresh water, in fresh water the ship sinks deeper, on very large ships this may be a difference of about 20 to 30 cm depending on their size.

Tankers:

On tankers so-called ullage surveys are carried out. Before loading the tanks are dipped (checked) that they are clean and empty. After the loading is completed, the ullages are measured, that means, the distance from a given datum on the tank top to the surface of the oil loaded is measured. From the ullage tables provided by the ship builders the amount of cargo can be calculated.

Again, also for these calculations the draft, the trim and any possible list have to be considered, as well as the temperature of the oil. Similar as on a bulk carrier the parameters as draft, bunkers, lubricating oils, fresh water, crew and stores on board are included in the calculation, giving a useful cross reference.

At the end of the above described surveys a survey report is issued by the inspector, a very important document for the master and the ship owner/operator, the charterers, the shippers and receivers, but also for the authorities, such as the custom's services.

SwissShips-HPS, November 2012

Back