Fraternity, leadership and a pillar of society

Already during the 1800s, it became apparent that Olof Söderberg was the most innovative and driven person within Söderberg & Haak’s management. For 35 years he served as the company’s real leader. Olof Söderberg was a large and powerful person, and not only figuratively speaking. As a young man, he went by the nickname ”Olle Whopper”.

Olof was chairman of the board of Söderberg & Haak from 1905-17 and 1923-31. His older brother, Per Johan Söderberg, was managing director of Söderberg & Haak from 1905-20, and chairman of the board from 1917-23 and 1931-35. There is nothing to suggest that Per Johan questioned his younger brother’s leadership. On the contrary, he took on the role of assisting his brother as the family’s representative and, after his brother’s death, to pave the way for Olof’s sons Torsten and Ragnar to take over leadership.

During the first fifteen years after the restructuring into a limited company  in 1905, Söderberg & Haak grew rapidly, from sales of SEK 4 million in 1905 to SEK 45 million in 1920. Taking inflation into account, that was an increase of over 200%.

Söderberg & Haak’s expansion could be seen in the geographic expansion of the sales organisation. The company added a representative in Gothenburg in 1908. Three years later, a sales office was opened in Copenhagen and in 1916 an office in Malmö.

Like the mining district itself, Söderberg & Haak was hard hit by the financial crisis during the first years of the 1920s. Söderberg & Haak had made good profits through 1919, but then a number of years of losses followed, the first since 1881. The falling price levels caused worries for wholesalers. During the second half of the decade, however, things started looking up for both the country and for Söderberg & Haak.

In addition to Olof Söderberg’s involvement in Söderberg & Haak and serving on the boards of a large number of companies in which he held ownership stakes or business contacts, he also took on a host of public positions. Olof Söderberg was deeply involved in creating shared institutions for trade and industry. Three of these became especially important, namely the Stockholm Chamber of Commerce, the Stockholm School of Economics and Sweden’s Private Employee Pension Fund (SPP). All three institutions were the first of their kind in the country. Söderberg was one of the people behind the creation of the Stockholm Chamber of Commerce in 1902. He sat on the board from its inception and become one of its most influential members, serving as chairman from 1914-16.

Olof Söderberg’s son, Ragnar, also came to play prominent roles in the Chamber of Commerce, the School of Economics and SPP. Subsequent generations of Söderbergs have also been actively involved in these three institutions, as well as other areas that Olof was involved with.

Olof Söderberg suffered heart failure and passed away on 4 January 1931, at the age of just 59 years. It would be his two sons, Torsten and Ragnar, who would carry on the family business. At the time of their father’s death they were 37 and 31 years old respectively. Just as with the previous generation, it was the younger brother, Ragnar, who was the most driven and who would take over the helm of the company. Like Per Johan Söderberg, Torsten Söderberg did not seem to have had any ambition to compete with his brother over the most prominent role. But obviously he participated, as one of the main owners, in all of the important decisions, both at Söderberg & Haak and at Ratos. Torsten and Ragnar Söderberg maintained a close and respectful relationship up until Torsten’s death in 1960.

At the start of the 1940s, the brothers were practically the sole owners of Söderberg & Haak. They had identical shareholdings. With the formation of Förvaltnings AB Ratos in 1934, Ragnar Söderberg implemented a key initiative to organise the family’s holdings, both in Söderberg & Haak and in other companies.

Ragnar Söderberg (1900-74) demonstrated businessman talents early on. An anecdote has been recounted about how he, as a young boy, managed to break one of two valuable East Indian vases that his grandparents had. Ragnar wanted to do right by himself and therefore asked his grandfather, Peder Herzog, how much he should pay. He replied that Ragnar could pay five kronor, upon which he replied: ”Here’s ten kronor grandfather, I’ll buy the other one, too”.

Ragnar Söderberg frequently said: “If people are content, then they’ll work well”. He was, like Torsten, very concerned about his employees and he endeavoured to remember the names of as many employees as possible. In 1946, he implemented free dental care, free healthcare and child subsidies for employees at Söderberg & Haak. Some of the benefits also extended to the employees’ family members as well as employees who had retired. There were also education stipends that employees could apply for.

The administrative limited company, Förvaltningsaktiebolaget Ratos, was founded on 7 February 1934. The name is an abbreviation of Ragnar and Torsten Söderberg, and the two brothers held equal ownership of the company. The goal was to create a more stable ownership structure for the companies and shareholdings that the family had, not least of all in light of future inheritances. Between them, Torsten and Ragnar had a total of seven children.

With Ratos, the Söderbergs established an extensive network of contacts in trade and industry, and they also developed an ability to exercise ownership in a host of different kinds of companies, which would be of great importance for the future.

In 1960, Torsten and Ragnar each transferred a significant portion of their Ratos shares to newly formed foundations, for the purpose of promoting scientific research, primarily within medicine, economics and jurisprudence. These foundations remain large owners in Ratos. The significant amounts that the foundations distributed annually are based largely on distributions from Ratos shares.