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Cockerill at 200: Bicentenary celebrations in Seraing this year
Much has changed in the 200 years since Englishman John Cockerill established his engineering and manufacturing company in Seraing, taking over the former palace of the Bishop-Princes of Liège in 1817. And yet, if he returned to the castle today, he would still recognise the business taking place inside.
“Two hundred years on, we are still living off his vision of innovation and export,” says Eric Franssen, who is responsible for business development at Cockerill Maintenance & Ingénierie (CMI). This global business group continues both its founder’s name and his interests.
“Today we are an innovating and engineering company in fields that John Cockerill was already involved in 200 years ago,” he says, “such as locomotives, steam generators, mechanical equipment for the steel industry, guns and cannons.”
This sense of continuity is a theme of bicentenary celebrations that are taking place in Seraing and elsewhere in Wallonia throughout the year.
John Cockerill was born in Lancashire, England in 1790. At the age of 12 he moved to Verviers, now in Belgium but then under French rule, where his father, William, had established a business mechanising the weaving industry.
In 1807 the family moved to Liège, with John and his older brother Charles James managing the business. Growth was huge and they exported their machines into France and the Rhineland.
When the Dutch took control of Liège in 1815, the Cockerill brothers found a new patron. William of Orange not only offered to sell them the castle at Seraing, but also invested in the company they set up there.
As before, they designed and built machines, but they also took the region’s coal, limestone and iron ore to make their own steel. The result was one of the first integrated industrial companies in history, producing looms, steam engines, cannons, boilers, locomotives and ships.
After Belgium gained its independence in 1830, the company was particularly important in the development of the railways. Cockerill built both the first steam locomotive on continental Europe, Le Belge, and supplied the rails to build the first line, from Brussels to Mechelen, in 1835.
All was not plain sailing though. In 1839 a banking crisis drove the firm to the brink of ruin, prompting the Belgian government to propose a public buyout. John Cockerill, by then the sole owner of the company, rejected the idea, instead travelling to Russia with a bold plan to build railways for the Tsar. On the way home, in June 1840, he died of typhoid fever in Warsaw.
Cockerill had no children, so the business was taken up on behalf of the family by a cousin and nephew, Gustave Pastor. He helped restore its economic fortunes and turned it into a public limited company. In the decades that followed, the John Cockerill Company grew dramatically, both in Europe and by opening new markets, for example in China.
Steel production and coal mining gradually overshadowed the engineering and manufacturing side of the business. This concentration increased during the 20th century as the company went through a series of mergers with other local steel producers.
In 1982 the steel company turned its mechanical construction division into a separate subsidiary, called Cockerill Mechanical Industries (CMI). In 2002 this was sold to a group of independent private shareholders, who still own the company today. The name Cockerill Maintenance & Ingénierie, still CMI, was adopted in 2004.
Although independent, CMI began life heavily dependent on designing and making equipment and providing maintenance services for the steel industry. “The management’s vision, under Bernard Serin, was to instil a strong spirit of innovation,” Franssen recalls. “There was a reorganisation, commercial development and diversification, both in sectors and geographically.”
New business was created, for instance carrying out maintenance work for nuclear power stations and wind farms, and new activities began in China, Brazil, Mexico and Africa, to name but a few.
“This is why our workforce has risen from 1,500 in 2002 to 4,600 today,” Franssen says. It is divided into five sectors, covering energy, defence, industry, environment and services. In a sense the company has now come full circle.
“It remains what it was 200 years ago,” says Franssen. “I think John Cockerill would recognise the CMI of today more than the CMI that was part of the Cockerill Group twenty years ago.”
Even so, the absence of manufacturing and steelmaking at Seraing might puzzle him. “There are hardly any workshops left, not just on this site but anywhere in Belgium, or Western Europe more broadly.”
Although most of the manufacturing has gone, locomotives are still assembled at Seraing and it’s home to the company’s welding academy.
“The evolution in materials means new welding technologies have to be developed,” Franssen explains. “We do that, and we train the people who will either do the welding on site or supervise the welding that we ask companies to do.”
But for the most part Seraing is an administrative centre, with some 600 people taking care of corporate services such as finance, commercial direction and human resources, along with some operational units. “We export to the four corners of the Earth, and you have to be based somewhere,” Franssen says of the location. “Belgium has great transport connections, particularly with Africa, it has good universities and good people.”
CMI still occupies Château Cockerill, which has just been restored to its former glory. Work was completed in May, in time for a visit by King Philippe to mark John Cockerill Company’s bicentenary.
The John Cockerill Foundation has been set up to work on the company’s heritage, both this year and into the future. It has overseen production of a book on the castle's history and a TV documentary about John Cockerill’s life. Currently there is an exhibition in Liège that explores his legacy of invention and technological development in Wallonia.
Later there will be an academic conference on technology and society, where the aim will be to reflect on the company of tomorrow. The foundation also plans to set up a John Cockerill prize, to recognise technological developments that serve both industry and sustainable development.
This article first appeared in WAB (Wallonia and Brussels) magazine