1890s: Founding of the shipping company

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.


1900s: Creation of the La Plata Line

At the turn of the century, Brazil was producing approximately 90 percent of the coffee consumed worldwide. A group of German and British shipowners known as the Coffee Conference controlled all coffee transport from Brazil to Europe. In 1905, as a way of entering the market, Nordstjernan started a new route known as the La Plata Line between Gothenburg and Buenos Aires – the only port available in South America with Brazil’s ports off limits. Instead of the name Nordstjernan, which was difficult to pronounce for people outside Sweden, the name “Johnson Line” was used. This is why the ship flag still used today as Nordstjernan’s symbol features a “J”.

Five years later, the La Plata Line was firmly established. Axel Johnson presented the German shipowners with an ultimatum: allow Johnson Line into the Coffee Conference or face a price war. In a development that would have a major impact on its continued economic expansion, Nordstjernan was allowed to ship coffee – mainly to the Scandinavian markets. Some 20 years after its modest start, Nordstjernan was now a major transatlantic shipping company.


1910s: Driven by new technology

Axel Ax:son Johnson (1876-1958), or the Consul General as he came to be known after inheriting his father’s position as Consul General of Siam (now Thailand) in Sweden took over after his father’s death in 1910. He didn’t have a good start as the head of his father’s corporate group as he embarked on a venture to merge two shipbuilding companies – Bergsunds Mekaniska Verkstad and Motala Mekaniska Verkstad.
The venture went awry and it took until the 1940s for him to incorporate a shipyard into his business group.

Axel’s next project was also grand and visionary – but decidedly more successful. When the diesel-powered cargo ship Suecia was ordered in 1911, Nordstjernan became a pioneer in the transition from steam to diesel power for ocean-going cargo vessels. Not only did diesel engines require less manpower than steam engines, the fuel also took up less of the vessels’ valuable cargo space. Nordstjernan adopted the new technology and sold its old vessels before its rival shipping companies had realized what was happening.

The early years of the First World War were a time of prosperity for the growing shipping company from the neutral country of Sweden. Freight rates soared and the money was rolling in. However, in 1917, Germany launched its so-called unrestricted submarine warfare – attacking merchant vessels without warning, in contravention of the prevailing conventions of the time – and the North Sea was closed. The situation nevertheless improved following the negotiation of trade agreements with Germany and the UK.


1920s: Hub of a growing group

After the end of the war, Nordstjernan continued to replace its older fleet with newly produced vessels. The early 1920s saw the establishment of new routes, most notably the so-called Pacific Lines to the west coast of North and South America via the Panama Canal. The west coast of North America was home to an expansive market for Swedish goods as well as cheap oil and diesel.

Avesta Jernverk, acquired in 1904, became one of the world’s most successful specialist steel manufacturers through systematic development of new alloys and production methods. The company’s steel was used to build vessels bearing the Nordstjernan flag, which would ship more steel across the world and return with import goods. To reduce Nordstjernan’s dependency on foreign diesel suppliers, Sweden’s first refinery was built in Nynäshamn in 1928. This, in turn, resulted in the establishment of Nynäs gas stations and investments in the Linjebuss bus company. To supply the refinery with raw materials, tankers were added to Nordstjernan’s fleet.

One of the by-products from the refinery was the bonding agent bitumen, which is used in asphalt. The formation of Svenska Vägaktiebolaget and Nya Asfalt marked Nordstjernan’s entrance into the construction and civil engineering industry. The two companies were eventually merged. NCC’s roots can be traced to this time via Johnson Construction Company (JCC) and Armerad Betong Vägförbättringar (ABV).


1930s: Continued expansion

During the 1930s, Nordstjernan continued to grow. The company’s expansion was governed by two fundamental ideas. The first was self-sufficiency. The Consul General’s various companies operated in related value chains and supplied one another with goods and services. The second was to ensure the company’s competitiveness by maintaining a technological edge. The Consul General believed that to be worth investing in, a company must either have a unique product or a unique production method. It must also have the ability and resources to develop its products and production methods to remain competitive in the long term.