Rohm and Haas Started With Two Ottos
By Henry J. Holcomb, The Philadelphia Inquirer
Jul. 10–The business that became a regional icon for more than a century began when two German guys named Otto — chemist Rohm and businessman Haas — got together to market a new product to leather tanners.
Rohm and Haas was born in Germany in 1907. Two years later, Haas came to the United States and opened a branch office in Philadelphia, which is now the company’s headquarters. That was in an era when the city was the headquarters of the nation’s largest corporation, the Pennsylvania Railroad, and the nation’s foremost manufacturing center, way ahead of New York City, which was in second place.
Within a decade, the company’s own story of its history recounts, revenues were $1 million. Then came World War I and the U.S. federal government pressured the company to sever its German ties. Haas, who was running the American operation, became the sole owner, but Rohm would later play a role.
Back then, civic boosters called Philadelphia the “Workshop of the World.”
Workers here turned out Baldwin Locomotives, Budd railcars and automobile bodies, big ships, airplanes, After Six tuxedos, Stetson hats, Whitman’s chocolates, textiles and scores of other things that equipped the nation for growth.
In its teen years, Rohm and Haas emerged as a specialty chemical company. Later it survived the Great Depression, with Otto Haas running the company with a style often described as stern, paternalistic and benevolent.
Old-timers and retirees still talk fondly of his stewardship, which led the company to a broad range of discovery and innovation.
In the 1930s, it developed its trademarked Plexiglas, which gained popularity with the growing aircraft industry, the company’s history touts, because of its light weight and optical clarity. It continued to find new uses for Plexiglas in the 1950s.
The company’s prosperity was aided by government contracts and by pioneering work in plastics, cosmetics, dyes, varnishes and dyes. Its processes led to improvements in wine-making and sugar refining.
The pioneering chemical plants were often dangerous places to work, and Rohm & Haas was said to have paid people well to take the risk. An explosion at the Bridesburg plant in early 1959 led to dozens of respiratory cancer deaths.
Laws were kind to the industry, shielding companies and their executives from lawsuits filed by injured workers and survivors of those who died.
Otto Haas died in 1960, and his son, Fritz Otto Haas, became chief executive as the company expanded into latex paint and agricultural chemicals such as Dithane M45 fungicide, which became is best-selling product.
He retired in 1970, ending direct Haas family management of the company, which by then employed 20,000 and ranked among the dozen largest chemical companies in the world.
From its headquarters at Sixth and Market Streets, Center City, it ran 51 manufacturing plants, with operations, including foreign subsidiaries, in nearly two dozen countries.
The company history describes the 1970s as a time of reorganization to become more efficient. Seeking new markets, it invested in fibers and health-care products, which were soon deemed a poor fit with the core business and sold.
In 1999, it merged with Morton International Inc., the salt maker, in a $4.9 billion deal that created the world’s largest specialty-chemical company.
In 2001 it sold its agricultural chemicals business for $1 billion to Dow Chemical Co., the company that acquired all of Rohm and Haas today.
But it continued to experiment and develop new products, such as one that delivered light from a single bulb to many places over fiber-optic tubes — to illuminate flowers and fragile objects without heat.
By 2005 the nearly new Bristol laboratory, which won architectural awards and was the scene of such pioneering work, was empty. It was part of the Bristol campus that had been sold to Michael O’Neill’s Preferred Real Estate Investments Inc. of Conshohocken and redeveloped for use by others.
In recent years Rohm and Haas has faced expenses related to environmental lawsuits and worker injuries. It has expanded and contracted — mostly contracted. There have been frequent layoffs and divestitures as the global chemical industry, pressed by rising cost of raw materials, has consolidated.
Contact staff writer Henry J. Holcomb at 215-854-2614 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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