Juan María Ybarra Gutiérrez de Cabiedes (1809–87)

Juan Maria Ybarra Gutiérrez de Cabiedes was one of the people responsible for the growth of the iron and steel industries in the Basque Country. He had diverse commercial interests in banking, mining and railways but his principal significance was as a founder of the steel-making firm Altos Hornos de Bilbao.

Jaun Maria was born in Bilbao, the eldest son of José Antonio Ybarra y de los Santos (1774-1849), who became a dealer in iron ore and consolidated his success by establishing a partnership with competitors to form Ybarra, Mier y Cía. At the age of 25, Gabriel Maria became a partner, soon afterwards joined by his younger brother Gabriel Maria (1814-1890). At the age of 30 he made a tour of the company’s commercial partners in Madrid, Seville, Cádiz and Valencia to consolidate cooperation. The family invested in iron-ore mines in Triano and Somorrostro, which they leased to mine operators. In 1846 they built a blast furnace at Guriezo in Cantabria

After their father died in 1849 the company became known as Ybarra Brothers (Ybarra Hermanos y Compañía) and was run by Juan Maria, Gabrial Maria and their brother-in-law Cosme Zubiría. Around 1854 they began building a new ironworks in partnership with José Vilallonga, which they called Fábrica de El Carmen. It was located at Barakaldo, on the estuary near Bilbao - a site well-placed for exporting products and importing coal. It became the largest industrial plant in the Biscay region. They installed ovens for direct reduction of iron ore to make malleable iron, a method devised by the French inventor Adrien Chenot (1803-1855). They used this process with charcoal and mineral fuel until 1871, when they installed conventional blast furnaces fuelled by coal. To further integrate their operation they made contracts to lease mines and a railway concession with international companies in which they took shares: Orconera and Franco-Belgian. By the 1870s the export demand for non-phosphoric Basque iron ore had increased considerably, especially to Britain, due to the introduction of Bessemer steel-making, which depended on this type of ore. In 1882 they established the company Altos Hornos y Fábrica de Hierro y Acero de Bilbao and installed their own Bessemer converters to make steel. After Juan Maria Ybarra’s death, this was one of the companies merged with others to create the powerful steelmaking conglomerate Altos Hornos de Vizcaya.