The background story
The history of Umicore goes back more than 200 years. It all started with the coming together of a number of mining and smelting companies, which gradually evolved into the materials technology and recycling company Umicore is today.
Where it all began
On 17 December 1805, Napoleon Bonaparte granted Jean Dony control of the Vieille-Montagne mine in Moresnet, on what is today the border between Belgium and Germany.
It marked the beginning of what became in 1837 the 'Société Anonyme des Mines et Fonderies de Zinc de la Vieille-Montagne', the oldeste predecessor of the eventual Umicore company.
The story of another Umicore tendril, Union Minière, commenced in 1906. Union Minière du Haut Katanga (UMHK), as it was known at the time, produced copper and other metals in the Congo.
After the Zairian government nationalised the company's assets in 1968, UMHK set out to develop new mining and refining activities, eventually becoming a sub-holding of Société Général de Belgique.
The pieces of the puzzle
The merger in 1989 of Union Minière with it subsidiaries (Metallurgie Hoboken-Overpelt, Vieille-Montagne and Mechim) transformed Union Minière into an integrated industrial group.
Union Minière increasingly positioned itself as a specialty materials company throughout the late 1990s. Having already sold its remaining mining and other non-strategic assets, its focus was now on precious metals, high-margin zinc products and advanced materials.
To symbolise this trend of moving away from mining and the production of commodities and base metals, the Group changed its name to Umicore in 2001. The first two letters of the name are the initials to Union Minière, referring to the Group's historical roots.
A defining decade
The acquisition of PMG in 2003 added a new dimension to the company, including a major presence in the automotive catalyst sector. PMG was in fact the former precious metals unit of the German Degussa group - the very company that, in 1887, had been a founding shareholder of Umicore's Hoboken plant.
In 2005 Umicore spun off its copper business into a separate company called Cumerio, and two years later combined its zinc refining & alloys business with that of Zinifex, uniting them into a new company under the name Nyrstar.
At the conclusion of a ten-year transformation process, Umicore determined to focus on clean technologies including the development of new automotive catalysts, next generation rechargeable battery materials, fuel cell catalysts and membranes, and recycling processes. Umicore also broadened its geographical presence, notably in Asia.
Rising to the challenges posed by key megatrends such as resource scarcity, the electrification of transport, emissions control and the need for renewable energy, Umicore defined its growth strategy “Vision 2015”, combining an ambitious technology and business roadmap with a fully integrated sustainable development approach. The strategic roadmap was centered around dedicated growth initiatives in automotive catalyst applications, new recycling capacities and capabilities offered by innovative technologies, new generations of battery materials for automotive applications and new materials for photovoltaic applications.
A new Horizon
Horizon 2020 defined the best approach for success in the following 5 years, setting clear goals for profitable growth with a more balanced portfolio. By 2020 Umicore aimed to become a clear leader in clean mobility materials and recycling, to double the earnings while rebalancing the contribution from the business groups, and to turn its leadership in sustainability into a greater competitive edge.
As part of its growth ambitions in clean mobility materials and recycling, Umicore launched major capacity and capability expansions. For rechargeable battery materials, the focus was on further expansion of production capacity for plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles. For automotive catalysts, Umicore made a series of investments in light-duty and heavy-duty diesel emission control catalyst production and technology centers in Europe and Asia.
To focus on clean mobility materials and recycling, Umicore reduced its portfolio complexity through various divestments, including the sale of two historic zinc-focused business units, Building Products and Zinc Chemicals, and by reducing the number of business units from 14 to 9, both through divestments and business unit consolidation. This focus also reduced the number of industrial sites (from 86 in 2015 to 50 in 2020). To expand our offering in this streamlined portfolio, Umicore made selected acquisitions in clean mobility materials and recycling, including the heavy-duty diesel and stationary catalyst activities from Haldor Topsoe in 2017 and the cobalt refinery in Kokkola, Finland in 2020.
Umicore’s commitment to sustainability extends to the supply chain, where we are a pioneer in providing our customers in the rechargeable battery value chain with materials of certified sustainable and ethical origin.
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused an unprecedented and sudden shock to the global economy. Despite short-term challenges and limited visibility on the course of the market recovery, the key long-term megatrends supporting Umicore’s growth strategy (resource scarcity, the electrification of transport and emissions control) are stronger than ever. Umicore remains committed to becoming a clear leader in clean mobility materials and recycling.
In the context of this crisis, Umicore’s priority is the health and safety of our employees. We introduced strict measures worldwide and monitor our operations globally, with a focus on protecting our employees.
Our resilience through these challenging times is built on Umicore's careful cash management, smart investment approach, strong portfolio of complementary activities and our unique expertise, that together deliver solutions for a more sustainable future. At Umicore, we are well equipped to maintain our strategic course and emerge stronger from the current crisis.