”This is the Centre for Business History”

Arkivet hos Centrum för Näringslivshistoria
Arkivet hos Centrum för Näringslivshistoria

Presentation by Alexander Husebye, CEO of Centre for Business History in Stockholm, at the IBC SBA 2015 Conference “Creating the Best Business Archive – Achieving a Good Return on Investment”, 15 – 16 June in Milan, Italy.

My thanks to the International Council of Archives and its Section on Business Archives for inviting me here today to talk about the Centre for Business History in Stockholm.

The Centre for Business History was founded in 1974 as a local initiative of the Stockholm Chamber of Commerce and the City of Stockholm. They wanted to encourage Stockholm-based companies to preserve and present their history, both for research and for business development going forward. That dual goal remains to this day. Today, however, the Centre for Business History operates not just in Stockholm but nationwide, both when it comes to membership and consulting. We are also working within the international networks that result from the fact that many of our member companies operate globally.

We have over 300 member companies, host around 7 000 individual company archives, totaling over 70 000 shelf meters of physical material, in addition to our rapidly increasing digital archives. Our turnover in 2014 was 4 million Euros with a staff of 31 coworkers.

Our overall aim remains the same as when we were founded and is today even stated clearly in our statutes:

To preserve and present business history

The association form that our founders chose also remains: we are incorporated in a non-profit association form since it gives us the opportunity to unite companies and other stakeholders in long-term commitments. The non-profit company is then mother to a wholly owned subsidiary of the same name, which is incorporated as a limited liability entity, and from which we run most of our commercial activities.

Today we have over three hundred member companies. You may know some of them: Ericsson, IKEA, H&M, Electrolux, Atlas Copco, Volvo and Scania Many of them have been international players for over a hundred years, each with their own unique history.

They also have their own individual reasons for why they became members at the Centre for Business History. Some have always been aware of their history and appreciate the business benefits of nurturing it. They use their history to continuously support their brand. Other companies instead have been painfully reminded of the need to control their story, perhaps during an overhaul of the company or during legal proceedings. They use their history as a risk management tool. Then there are those companies who want to make sure the organizational energy stays with the company. They use their history as a reminder of theorganizational culture and forward-looking drive.

Given these rationales, it is not surprising that our interactions with our member companies mostly happen with their corporate communications managers, human resource heads or general counsels.

The supreme governing body of the Centre for Business History is the annual general meeting (AGM) where each member company has one vote and where decisions are made about activities, membership fees and other formalities. The AGM appoints a Board of Directors, which represents the main stakeholders from academy and industry. It also includes individuals with special expertise in law, economics and communication. I serve as president of the non-profit organization itself, whose operations also include our research secretariat, headed by a post-doctoral researcher. This part of our activities is directed towards universities and other academic environments.

It is also in the non-profit mother organization that we carry out research projects with funding from trusts and foundations. The site “The Branobel History” represents such a project. Here we mapped the interesting history of Alfred Nobel’s two brothers Robert and Ludwig and their oil company Branobel. They operated in tsarist Russia and ran a company as powerful as the Rockefellers’ Standard Oil in the US.

Branobel History website

The research secretariat also manages our academic annual publication “Näringslivshistoria” – or Business History – and our library that is mostly composed of literature on Swedish business history.

While our academic activities are carried out by the non-profit umbrella organization, our consulting activities for member companies are run from a wholly-owned subsidiary of the same name. This entity is incorporated as a limited liability entity; in other words your typical Inc or Co. For reasons of tax regulation and facilities management, we have found this solution to be the only workable one. It is here that most of my colleagues are employed. It is also within the subsidiary that contracts with companies are drawn up for deposits of archives, processing of materials and of course production of history marketing and other consulting services.

The organizational structure of the commercial company has me as President and CEO, with other supporting functions being head of finance and an executive vice president. The organization otherwise rests on two pillars:

  • the archive group that includes management, research service and customer assignments; and
  • the editorial group where we both communicate our own offers as well as produce history marketing products of various kinds for our member companies.

I often get asked whether this structure, with a non-profit umbrella owning a for-profit organization, involves complications. After all, our group houses both a more academic, almost altruistic, mission with the commercial operations, not unlike those of a consulting or communication firm. My response is always no, quite the contrary. This approach enables us to have big ears towards trends both in academia and business, to be flexible in our services, and to balance the differing organizational demands of academic research and corporate consulting services.

Of course, an important aspect of our organizational solution is that it enables us to find financial support in various places and to quickly adapt to changes in the demand for our services. Part of the profits from the subsidiary also finance the non-profit mission.

The work we do with the actual archives is of course the foundation for everything at the Centre for Business History. The services we offer our member companies include deposits, evaluation and processing of archives as well as research services. This takes place under strictly regulated forms in regards to ownership and accessibility. The legal basis for these commitments are agreements with each individual member organization, which:

  • Ensure that the individual membership company retains ownership of the archives and information.
  • Regulate availability.
  • Determine the level of services including new archival material
  • Determine the company’s commitment as members.

We are in the trust business. Our credibility is what ensures our success. And a crucial factor to maintaining that credibility is that we always maintain an independent role, even when business and academy overlap. This picture illustrates this, with my former colleague Anna Ohlsson and professor Mats Larsson of Uppsala University interviewing Ericsson´s CEO Hans Vestberg, as part of our yearly – and confidential –interviews with Ericsson senior management. Our employees’ decorum is guided by our focus on independence and that we always – irrespective of whether it concerns archiving or publications – focus on a discerning approach.

As I mentioned earlier, our turnover in 2014 was about 4 million euros. We are almost totally self-financing, which for us is a must since state subsidies from the Swedish state never have been sufficient for us, and not for our fellow business archives in Sweden either for that matter.We currently have 31 employees, most of whom are qualified archivists. Among the others you will find skills for our web support, communications and marketing, editorial and finance.

I said earlier we have over 300 member companies, but also that we keep over 7,000 company archives. The much larger archive number has a few reaasons. For one, a large number of individual records are for companies that have gone bankrupt. We think of these as “strays” that we take care of. Another factor is that one corporate entity today can consist of dozens of different company archives, obtained over the years. All this gives us around 70 000 shelf meters, with the oldest material deriving from the 18th century and the latest from today.

Since Swedish companies have been internationally orientated, we keep materials from every part of the world. Our image collections are extraordinary in both quantity and chronology. There could be as many as 5 million photographs, but we’re actually not sure, since we haven’t cataloged them all yet. Another collection of interest is our films, which we are continuously digitizing. To this we can add half a million drawings, most from between 1850 and 1950.

Documents, photos and films are core parts of any archive. But in our case, we also often add physical artefacts, such as design items both for consumer electronics, home appliances and designer ware. For instance, the clothing giant H&M sends us a set of their annual designer collection as soon as it comes out. As an example, here’s a wedding dress by designer duo Victor and Rolf from 2006.

A challenge for all archive institutions, public and private alike, is digitally produced material, the “born digital” materials. Five years ago, we established a digital archive that today contains documents, photos and films. We have recently also added a service that allows businesses, via spindling technology, to preserve versions of their websites, both external and internal, with full customer access via the internet. As inhouse magazines and memos have been replaced by intranets, this is an increasingly important piece of history to capture.

Now, as we know, companies do not all have the same ambitions when it comes to how they archive or use their history. Our member companies can therefore choose between different service levels based on their needs and wants. Our baseline service, in addition to the actual deposits themselves, allows for searches in the archives for internal and external inquiries. From that point, various service levels can be agreed upon, where, for instance, archivists are made available for more comprehensive services.The research services are also beneficial for our member companies, since they can offload requests from media and educational institutions, by forwarding them to us at the Centre for Business History.

If “preserving” is one part of our mission, “presenting” is the other. We refer to this as our History Marketing-offer. The term, which is in wider use for each day among business archives, originates from the German historian and publisher, Alexander Schug, and a book he wrote on the topic. Today we use History Marketing as a generic term for outreach activities regardless of the target groups within industry, academy, the media or schools. For marketing professionals, who today often work with related marketing techniques, such as Content Marketing, deploying History Marketing-based campaigns, comes naturally.

A good example of a company that we have helped both with preserving and presenting their history is the global telco Ericsson, founded in 1876 by Lars Magnus Ericsson and his wife Hilda. After more than ten years of archival and history marketing work, the collaboration between the Centre for Business History and Ericsson has developed into a full-time service, running around the clock.

Among the many ways we make Ericsson’s history and archive materials accessible, the most ambitious one is probably the historical website www.ericssonhistory.com. It is an open website, accessible 24/7, that Ericsson encourages employees, business partners and clients alike to visit, not to mention the traffic it gets from researchers, schools, the media and the general public in Sweden. We produced the website for Ericsson and continue to maintain it for them. From that website, Ericsson’s various divisions today use nuggets, deploying them for instance as “Did you knows” on Facebook or posting a historical fact in each conference room at their headquarters.

The Ericsson History website, www.ericssonhistory.com

Presenting a single company’s history is core to the commercial activities of our for-profit company. However, our association form, with a non-profit umbrella company ensures that we give equal weight to our other core task: to communicate Sweden’s collective business history, to promote general academic research and to increase interest for business and entrepreneurship on a broader scale.This is where the number of target groups grows to include researchers, industry associations, government officials, media producers, teachers and students in schools, and not least an interested general public. We work of course to broaden the general knowledge of the Centre and what we can do in this area, and also to increase individual businesses’ awareness that their history has a more public meaning and a place in society’s general history.

Our website www.naringslivshistoria.se – and good luck to all non-Swedes in pronouncing that – plays a key role in communicating everything we do, and is the hub for all our social media outreach. An article on our site is pushed as a tweet, illustrated by a picture on Instagram, discussed on our blogs, and so on. Facebook is of course another important hub for us, where we publish photos and short stories on three different pages every day. On YouTube there is an established channel for documentaries and various films connected to websites that we are producing.

Another important channel for us when we want to raise the public’s awareness of business history is through our quarterly magazine “Företagshistoria”, or “Business History”. Here we highlight people, products and companies that have shaped our society today, telling stories in a popular way and with a lot of illustrations from the archives. The magazine has developed from a paper solely produced for members into being a subscription magazine which is sold in news-stands all over Sweden.

So far the good stuff. Now the challenges. For instance, how will things develop for us in a global environment where both Swedish companies are acquiring foreign companies, and are themselves being acquired? Well, the upside of international M&A activities outweigh the downside. When Swedish companies, like Ericsson, acquire companies, such as Marconi or Redback or Tandberg, they often engage us to evaluate materials and ensure that the archives end up in the right place both for preservation and for making them more accessible.When the opposite occurs, and Swedish companies are taken over by non-Swedish corporates, we are usually able to convince the foreign owners to continue to preserve materials under our management. This has happened for example with Unilever, Linde Group, Henkel and Mondelez. In fact, our experience is that most of the foreign acquirers put a larger value on preserving localy corporate history than the acquired company did it self, pre-purchase.

As you can probably tell by now, I believe we have found a very functional and successful model for running a business archive. However, I do want to acknowledge that ours is just one model and that many others may be better suited to your particular part of the harsh world that surrounds all us archivists and protectors of corporate heritage. I know that many of our international peers see the Centre for Business History as an exception. I have understood that many of the prerequisites for the Centre for Business History’s operations could be characterized as originating in a Swedish culture. It could be related to our disposition of organizing ourselves into associations for all sorts of purposes, even business history. But also perhaps in a desire for consensual agreement on achieving goals that promote the gains for transparency.

A critical point for us though, is our own skills. An issue that concerns both educating the current labor force, but also recruiting the right people for the future. Based on all my years of working at the Centre for Business History, I believe that those who choose to work with us combine the desire to achieve good archival work with the urge to share that story with the world. It doesn’t matter if the story is told in a book, a video, a 140-character tweet or a mail reply to an inquisitive researcher, we are all story tellers in one way or another. I said earlier that we are in the trust industry, and to this I want to add that we are also in the knowledge sharing industry.

Again, my thanks to the organizers for allowing me to share our story. Thank you all for your time. I look forward to continuing our discussions here at the conference – and over the many years to come.

Alexander Husebye