Nordstjernan’s founder, Axel Johnson (1844–1910), was born into a family of saddlers in Jönköping, Sweden. As a young man, he made his way to Stockholm where he worked his way up in a silk company, all the while teaching himself English and German business correspondence. In the 1870s, he ran his own company, which imported coal and exported iron. He quickly became successful.
A shipping company was the natural next step as Axel Johnson continued to develop his business. Using the money he had earned trading shares, he acquired the small three-masted steamship Annie Thérèse, named after his wife. Nordstjernan was founded on May 19, 1890 when the vessel was converted into a company. The business grew rapidly. By the early 1900s, Nordstjernan had become one of Sweden’s leading shipping companies.