Hugo Stinnes (1870–1924)

During the late German Empire and the early Weimar Republic, the industrialist and politician Hugo Dieter Stinnes created a vast conglomerate. He was considered Germany’s ‘business Kaiser’, with control of coal mines, steelworks, shipping, power stations, hotels, newspapers and banks. It is believed at the time of his death he owned or part-owned 4,000 companies with 600,000 employees.

Stinnes was born at Mülheim in the Ruhr valley where his father ran a coal mine and shipping business established by his grandfather on the rivers Ruhr and Rhine. After secondary school, Stinnes received business training in an office in Koblenz and worked as a miner at the Wiethe colliery to gain practical knowledge. He began studies at the technical university of Charlottenberg but for a management role in the family mines in 1890 following his father’s death.

In 1892, Stinnes founded Hugo Stinnes GmbH, which became the centre of operations for the Stinnes trust. With the profits from distributing coal he purchased a shipyard and seagoing vessels, river steamers and barges. He organised international trade using thirteen steamers to carry coal, wood, grain and ore between ports in the North Sea, the Baltic Sea, the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. He imported English coal and established branches of his business in Newcastle, Hamburg and Rotterdam. He raised capital with partners to expand his coal mining operations at Mülheim and Essen. In 1898 he moved into the field of electricity generation as a member of the board of Rheinisch-Westfälisches Elektrizitätswerk Aktiengesellschaft (RWE). He supplied coal to the company and by 1902 he and the steel magnate Joseph Thyssen had become the majority shareholders. The business expanded across Germany to become the country’s largest electricity provider.

By 1914 he owned sixty subsidiaries, including many of the largest manufacturing and mining companies in Westphalia, the Rhineland and Luxembourg. During the First World War, he was a leading supplier of war materials for Germany and made massive profits even though his businesses in England and Holland were sequestrated. He advocated forced labour of prisoners.

After the War, he raised foreign loans for further investment, for example in oil production, car manufacturing, rail wagons, paper making, chemicals and newspapers. In 1920 he became a member of the Reichstag for the German People’s Party (Deutschenationale Volkspartei), where he tried to abolish the 8-hour working day that he had previously negotiated with trades unions. At the time of his death, his industries operated in Germany, Switzerland, Austria, the Balkans, Russia and Argentina. However, the conglomerate collapsed almost immediately after he died, aged 54.