CSR Limited History

Level 24, 1 O'Connell Street
New South Wales 2001

Telephone: (02) 9235-8000
Fax: (02) 9235-8044

Public Company
Incorporated: 1887 as The Colonial Sugar Refining Company
Employees: 19,700
Sales: A$6.96 billion (US$4.20 billion) (1998)
Stock Exchanges: Australian London New Zealand
NAIC: 212299 Other Metal Ore Mining; 212321 Construction Sand & Gravel Mining; 311311 Sugar Cane Mills; 311312 Cane Sugar Refining; 321113 Sawmills; 324122 Asphalt Shingle & Coating Materials Manufacturing; 326122 Plastics Pipe & Pipe Fitting Manufacturing; 327331 Concrete Block & Brick Manufacturing; 32739 Other Concrete Product Manufacturing; 32732 Ready-Mix Concrete Manufacturing; 32742 Gypsum Product Manufacturing; 331312 Primary Aluminum Production

Company History:

CSR Limited is one of the world's largest building and construction materials companies, with operations in Australia, New Zealand, Asia, and the United States. The company is also Australia's largest manufacturer of raw and refined sugar products. Although CSR was established in 1855 to refine sugar and soon after diversified into raw sugar milling, its sugar activities represent only about one-fifth of CSR's annual sales. In an effort to change its image from that of solely a sugar producer, CSR has been promoting its increasingly strong position in the building and construction materials industry. The company has substantial operations in quarrying, concrete, cement products, bricks and tiles, plasterboard, insulation, and timber products, as well as investments in aluminum.

Early History

The Colonial Sugar Refining Company (CSR) was formed as a partnership in January 1855 under the chairmanship of Edward Knox, an ambitious 35-year-old entrepreneur. Having acquired some of the assets of the defunct Australasian Sugar Company, the partnership bought the Brisbane House sugar refinery in Sydney. Two years later, in 1857, a new holding company--the Victoria Sugar Company--was formed jointly by CSR shareholders and Victorian business interests, and a sugar refinery and molasses distillery were set up at Port Melbourne. Later that year, Knox sold his house and some of his shares in the company and left for Europe by ship. Before he reached Europe, he was bombarded with letters telling him the company was ruined. Knox returned to Australia immediately.

The company underwent serious financial difficulties following the depression in the world sugar trade from 1857 to 1858. CSR countered the potentially disastrous effects of the depression by diversifying into sugar milling. By 1869 the company had built a number of new mills in northern New South Wales. With the construction of the Chatsworth, Southgate, and Darkwater mills CSR entered the sugar milling industry. Darkwater Mill has since been renamed Harwood Mill and is the oldest continually working sugar mill in Australia. Knox's second son, Edward William, was put in charge of the project.

The 1870s saw further diversification within the sugar industry. CSR had by now established a network of mills and refineries on the Queensland coast and the purchase of a small freight ship--SS Keera--in 1873 gave the company an entry into the coastal shipping business. In 1874 the Victoria Sugar Company's refinery in Melbourne was destroyed by fire and then replaced by the newly built Joshua Brothers' refinery.

CSR continued its program of expansion throughout the next decade. On his retirement, Knox handed over management of the company to his son, writing to a friend, "I can only expect to leave a kind of smeary, sugary track behind me." Edward William Knox was an impetuous and autocratic manager, anxious to emulate his father's success. The milling operations were extended to Queensland, where new mills had been constructed in the early 1880s. In 1882 CSR embarked on its first overseas project, building a mill in Nausori, Fiji. The following year CSR formed the New Zealand Sugar Company to refine sugar in New Zealand, as an equal partnership with the Victoria Sugar Company and business interests in New Zealand. In the mid-1880s CSR's research team conducted the first sugar cane fertilizer trials.

Incorporated in 1887

On July 1, 1887, CSR was amalgamated with the Victoria Sugar Company and was incorporated as a public company, The Colonial Sugar Refining Company Limited. The new company merged the following year with the New Zealand Sugar Company, and CSR was established as a leader in the Australian sugar industry. As the 19th century drew to a close, CSR continued to acquire mills along the Queensland coast and set up a new refinery in Brisbane. Administrative changes, designed to make management of the spreading company more efficient, were introduced in the early 1890s: sugar cane estates in Queensland were divided into small farms for leasing--with the rights of purchase&mdashø cane growers. In 1899 the company's investment in research and development allowed it for the first time to buy cane on the basis of its analyzed sugar content. Other sugar companies were less advanced in the research and application of chemical analysis, and CSR's commitment to research undoubtedly assisted its domination of the domestic sugar industry. In 1904 the company bred Australia's first successful commercial variety of sugar cane, which it christened Clark's Seedling.

Further expansion took place in the early part of the 20th century. An expedition in 1908 to New Guinea to collect samples of sugar cane and thereby improve breeding of new cane varieties for commercial use, gave rise to better cane and sugar yields. Two years earlier several Fijian plantations had been sold to a group of company officers who wanted to work for themselves. As World War I approached, CSR continued to consolidate its refining and milling businesses and sent another cane-gathering party to New Guinea. Trade in Australia benefited from the increase in the British government's demand for sugar and resources after World War I. In 1923 the commonwealth government transferred control of the sugar industry to the Queensland government, and CSR made its first annual refining and marketing agreement with the government. The worldwide Great Depression of the 1930s was threatening, however, and a downturn in demand was anticipated. In 1933 Edward William Knox retired, four months before his death. His son, Edward Ritchie Knox, took over as general manager.

Diversified into Building Materials and Construction Starting in the Late 1930s

The onset of World War II precipitated CSR's second major diversification. A pilot plant set up in 1936 to assess the feasibility of making wallboard from the residue fiber of crushed sugar cane provided CSR with what transpired to be a commercial method of disposing of its sugar millery byproducts. In 1939 CSR acquired shares in a chemicals plant in Sydney and opened a wallboard factory nearby, where the new product Cane-ite was produced. To meet the needs of the Australian war effort, CSR reduced its sugar-based production activities from 1939 onward to manufacture war-related materials. A new plaster mill was introduced in Sydney in 1942. Two years later CSR began mining asbestos when it acquired Australian Blue Asbestos's mine in Wittenoom, Western Australia.

Although CSR was known mainly as a sugar producer, the postwar program of diversification changed the corporate profile considerably. The last year of the war marked CSR's first substantial entry into building materials and construction when the company bought an interest in Fletcher Holdings, a large construction and timber company based in New Zealand. During the late 1940s CSR introduced new building products&mdash+asterboard and floor tiles--and expanded its factory stock in Sydney. The wave of expansion culminated in the formation of a new wholly owned subsidiary, CSR Chemicals, in 1948.

Over the next ten years, under the directorship of Edward Ritchie Knox, CSR continued to expand. The company's sugar operations were extended and facilities for bulk-loading raw sugar were introduced at two of the original Queensland mills and later extended to cover all 12 mills. In 1955 CSR was appointed coordinator for the Australian sugar industry's conversion to bulk handling. From the mid-1950s on, the company increased its involvement in the building materials industry. The acquisition in 1959 of the Bradford Insulation Group gave CSR a major share of the insulation products market throughout Australia. In the same year, the CSR Chemicals subsidiary spawned two new subsidiaries and a new product--particleboard--was introduced. Developments at this time included the takeover of Masonite Holdings, which manufactured hardboard.

The company opened new research centers in Brisbane in 1962 and in Sydney in 1963. The following year it joined American Metal Climax in a project to develop the Mount Newman iron ore deposits in Western Australia. From the mid-1960s until the early 1980s CSR increased its involvement in resources, including bauxite and alumina, tin, copper, coal, oil and gas, gold, aluminum, and minerals exploration. At the same time that CSR was increasing its investment in resources, it entered the concrete market for the first time. In 1965 it acquired a 50 percent share--with Blue Metal Industries--in Ready Mixed Concrete (RMC).

The 1969 takeover of Wunderlich Ltd., a large manufacturer of roof tiles, asbestos cement products, and architectural metal products, gave CSR its first significant entry into the Australian roof tile industry. The business was subsequently sold in 1983 to Monier. In 1972 the Fijian government bought CSR's Fijian sugar mills, ending the company's 90-year involvement in the Fijian sugar industry.

The resource ventures begun in the 1960s, during Australia's mineral boom, continued throughout the 1970s. The company began to invest in alumina and bauxite; various gold, tin, and copper ventures; and later, coal, oil, and gas. Extensive investments in a number of established coal mines made in the 1970s proved unsuccessful. The prices of coal and oil dropped almost immediately after the acquisitions had been made, near the peak of the energy cycle. A large proportion of loans made for the acquisition of coal and oil assets were in U.S. dollars. The repayments of these loans increased significantly with the fall in the Australian dollar exchange rate in 1983--84, coupled with falling energy prices.

Renamed CSR Limited in 1983

To reflect its diversification, and in an effort to modernize its corporate identity, the company dropped "Colonial Sugar Refining Company" from its original name and in 1973 it became CSR Limited. In the following year CSR entered the cement industry through the joint acquisition, with Pioneer International, of Australian and Kandos Cement. The managerial difficulties CSR was experiencing with such diverse business interests forced a strategic reorganization. The sugar division was formed in 1974 and the mineral division and the building and construction materials division were formed the following year.

Further diversification took place in 1977, when CSR bought AAR Ltd., an exploration company with natural gas, oil, and drilling contracts. Thiess, a large coal company, was acquired in 1979. When the resources boom of the 1970s and early 1980s petered out, CSR was left with a debt and interest burden that made the company vulnerable to takeover bids. Investors had lost faith in the company and CSR share prices plummeted. The company was surviving in large part on the activities of the sugar and building materials divisions, but the drop in world sugar prices in the early to mid-1980s made the situation worse. Until the extensive management and corporate restructuring that began in 1985, CSR was a struggling company. Bryan Kelman became general manager in 1983.

In 1981 the company significantly increased its investment in the oil industry when it bought an Australian-based, U.S.-owned oil and petroleum producer, Delhi International Oil Corporation. The major investments in coal, and particularly oil, were badly timed. The Delhi acquisition was hit with falling oil prices, lack of new oil discoveries, and a falling Australian dollar, while carrying extensive debt in U.S. dollars. As a result, the company began a process of repaying much of its debt through the sale of iron ore and some coal assets. This was followed in 1987 with the sale of Delhi for US$985 million, resulting in a loss of more than US$600 million.

In 1985 sugar profits fell dramatically. Growing public concern about the health risks associated with sugar consumption and a slump in world prices hit CSR badly. In 1985 sugar was at its lowest price in 200 years. Many cane farmers were living below the poverty line and accused CSR of mismanaging the industry in which it played a dominant role.

Shifted Away from Resources, Toward Manufacturing in the Late 1980s

In 1987 CSR began the process of changing the company from a diversified resources and industrial group to a diversified manufacturing company in building and construction materials and sugar--core activities in which the company had long years of experience, since 1855 in sugar and since 1939 in building materials. Between 1987 and 1989 the company sold more than US$2 billion of low-yielding and lossmaking assets in resources and reinvested these funds in building and construction materials and sugar operations, including large investments in the United States. By the end of the 1980s CSR had sold all of its interests in tin, gold, and mineral exploration, its coal mines, and its oil and gas interests. The head office in Sydney, where the company had been based for 106 years, also was sold to compensate for falling profits. In addition, a more streamlined management structure was introduced. Ian Burgess took over as chief executive of CSR in 1987, and his ruthless approach to restructuring the flagging conglomerate was generally accepted as having saved CSR from takeover or collapse. Burgess had joined the company straight from school in 1950 and was anxious to change the antiquated management style. "It was a very conservative place," he told the Wall Street Journal on May 14, 1987, "you even had to get your wife approved. You had to go to your boss and say 'Please sir, can I get married?"' Under Burgess's guidance, each of CSR's divisions was transformed. The building materials division, for example, had employed 157 senior managers. After Burgess's reorganization, there were three. Burgess also dispensed with the CSR annual cricket match, a 94-year-old company tradition. By the end of 1989 the reorganization was complete.

The acquisition of the U.S. Rinker Materials Corporation in 1988 gave CSR a large proportion of the Florida concrete and quarry products market. In 1990 CSR acquired ARC America, a large quarry and concrete products operator with interests in 20 states including Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Washington, California, Nevada, Texas, and Florida. By the end of 1990 the building and construction division made up 64 percent of total sales. CSR had grown into one of the largest quarrying and concrete operators in the United States and had more quarries there than in Australia. The same year CSR announced record profits. Against a background of high inflation rates and a weak Australian dollar in the mid-1980s, CSR's divestment policy appeared to have paid off. Further expansion in timber, when CSR bought Softwood Holdings in 1988, meant a quadrupling of profits for the timber products division. Despite slow growth in the construction industry, but with profits increasing by 65 percent in 1989, CSR began to focus on Europe and the United States for expansion. In 1987 the company bought a 49 percent share in Redland Plasterboard, a large British construction company with assets throughout Europe. Increasing competition in the United Kingdom and European plasterboard industry caused CSR to sell out its interest in 1990.

In 1989 controversy concerning the company's alleged negligence in its management of the Wittenoom asbestos mine, which it had sold in 1966, was settled. CSR paid out an estimated A$30 million in damages to more than 300 workers suffering from asbestos-related lung diseases. Australian newspapers referred to the event as "Australia's Bhopal."

A commercial development affecting CSR in the early 1990s was the deregulation of the domestic refined sugar industry, which began in 1989. CSR reassessed its refining capacity and locations in the face of greater competition, both from domestic sources and imports. Although profits as a commercial refiner were better than those earned as a toll refiner on behalf of the Queensland government, CSR lost about 20 percent of its market share within Australia--it stood at about 75 percent by mid-decade.

CSR continued its U.S. expansion in the 1990s, including the purchase of three U.S. building materials companies in 1996. By that time U.S. activities represented about one-third of CSR's total assets and 26 percent of its worldwide workforce. During the 1998 fiscal year more than 30 percent of CSR's revenues were derived from its North American operations and nearly 32 percent of its operating profit came from that continent.

With its North American operations continuing to grow, CSR also sought growth on another continent, that of Asia. With booming Asian markets located in CSR's own backyard, the company's growth there in the early and mid-1990s made much sense. Having already established a joint venture in Taiwan to build and operate a concrete products factory, CSR in 1994 formed a joint venture to supply premixed concrete in northern China, the company's first foray into that nation. Other joint ventures were formed in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia, with CSR entering the Asian market in four product areas: plasterboard, insulation materials, construction materials, and timber. In 1995 CSR combined its interests in these joint ventures within a new company called CSR Kuok Asia Ltd., which was 75 percent owned by CSR and 25 percent owned by the Kuok Group, an entity headed by Malaysian-Chinese businessman Robert Kuok. During fiscal 1998, however, CSR bought out the Kuok Group's interest and took full control of CSR Kuok Asia. From 1994 to 1997 CSR increased the number of plants it operated in Asia from 2 to 19. For the 1997 fiscal year, CSR's revenues from Asia increased more than 50 percent over the preceding year, reaching A$147 million. The Asian economic crisis that erupted during 1997 reversed this trend, however, as revenues from Asia for the 1998 fiscal year fell to A$132.8 million. That year CSR made no further investments in the region.

Late 1990s Restructuring

From the mid-1990s into the late 1990s, CSR was seeing a steady increase in revenues but a declining trend in operating profits. The company concluded that it was being dragged down by a number of underperforming units and that it would be to the company's advantage to reduce its interests to a narrower core through restructuring. During fiscal 1997 CSR closed 38 "less efficient" plants and generated A$240 million from the sale of noncore assets. The following year CSR sold American Aggregates Corporation, a U.S.-based operator of quarries and crushed stone plants, to Martin Marietta Materials Inc. for about US$235 million. Also during fiscal 1998 CSR took a A$398 million (US$240 million) after-tax charge to write down the value of a number of underperforming units. This charge led to a net loss for the year of A$109.8 million (US$66.3 million). CSR's restructuring efforts continued into 1999. The company announced in February 1999 that it had reached an agreement to sell its contract mining and civil contracting businesses to Downer Group Limited for about A$135 million (US$84.9 million). In April 1999 CSR announced that it would sell its South Australian and Victorian softwood plantations and sawmills to a U.S.-based timber partnership, RII Weyerhaeuser World Timberfund Pty. Ltd., for A$224 million (US$142.4 million). Through these divestments, CSR appeared to be securing itself a much more promising future as a highly focused building and construction material firm.

Principal Operating Units: CSR Construction Materials; CSR Building Materials; CSR America; CSR Timber Products; CSR Sugar; Aluminum.

Further Reading:

  • Brooks, Geraldine, "Australia's CSR Boosts Its Sagging Fortunes," Wall Street Journal, May 14, 1987.
  • Chow, Lotte, "Go North: Like Many Australian Firms, CSR Sees Its Future in Asia," Far Eastern Economic Review, August 29, 1996, p. 60.
    CSR: Building in Quality; Fact Book, Sydney: CSR, January 1990.
    CSR Limited--130 Years, Sydney: CSR, 1986.
  • Lowndes A. G., ed., South Pacific Enterprise, Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1956.
  • Sherwell, Chris, "CSR Sheds Its Unloved Reputation," Financial Times, December 2, 1988.
  • ------, "CSR Works to a Sweeter Future," Financial Times, June 11, 1987.
  • ------, "Shifts in Australian Mining Row," Financial Times, August 24, 1988.
  • Tait, Nikki, "CSR Settles 18,000 Asbestos Claims," Financial Times, April 30, 1996, p. 27.
  • ------, "Housing Weakness Drags Down CSR," Financial Times, May 13, 1997, p. 30.
  • ------, "Kuok and CSR in Construction Materials Deal," Financial Times, September 29, 1995, p. 27.

Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 28. St. James Press, 1999.