5

Dutch multinational trading companies in the twentieth century

Keetie E. Sluyterman

The history of the Dutch multinational trading companies in the twentieth century is still a rather unexplored field, as most attention has been focused on the seventeenth-century merchants. It would be interesting to know at the start of this research how many trading companies existed during the twentieth century and how important they were in terms of assets, employees and turnover. When trying to answer these questions, the first problem that arises is one of definition. Which companies are covered by the English term ‘trading companies’? Casson’s definition: ‘a firm that specialises in market-making intermediation may be defined as a trading firm’ is of some help, but covers thousands of firms of very diverse nature and sizes varying from two-man retail traders to multinational companies with large numbers of staff. (Casson, Chapter 2, this volume). We can only start comparing like with like if we narrow down the number of companies to those engaged in roughly similar business activities. In this chapter I want to concentrate on multinational companies in the twentieth century, with the exclusion of those trading in one commodity only. This still leaves a group of fifty to one hundred companies and private firms, judging very roughly from the stock exchange handbooks (Van Oss’ Effectenboek 1904-72).

There is, however, a second problem. Some trading companies diversified into other activities, notably production, to form what Casson termed a ‘hybrid trading company’. It is not easy to distinguish between a multinational trading company integrating backwards into production and a producer integrating forwards into marketing its exports. According to Casson, this ambiguity over the terminology is not a sign of any ambiguity in the underlying theory but is in fact predicted by it. His conclusion is that where trading companies are concerned, it is a mistake to become transfixed on questions of terminology. It is more relevant to find out why some trading companies became hybrid and others remained pure multinational trading companies (Casson, Chapter 2, this volume). For this reason, in this chapter I shall disregard the question of the numbers and importance of Dutch trading companies and concentrate instead on their function as intermediaries in international trade.

The intermediation process involves several stages, including export,

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