The Times: Sir Henri Deterding Obituary: 6 February 1939


Sir Henri Deterding, who was spending the winter at his villa near Suvretta, at St. Moritz, died suddenly on Saturday from angina pectoris, telegraphs our Geneva Correspondent. His death is causing great grief at St. Moritz, where his generosity and kindness had made him very popular. By his death the international oil industry loses one of its most dominating figures.

For many years until his retirement at the end of 1936 he was general manager of the Royal Dutch Shell group of companies, an enterprise which by dint of unflagging industry allied to remarkable foresight and technical ability he built up from small beginnings to a world-wide importance.

Like many other successful industrialists, Henri Wilhelm August Deterding owed much to fortune. Chance rather than design led him into the oil industry while it was still in its infancy and when science was just beginning to reveal the enormous possibilities that lay ahead. His quick appreciation of technical needs and problems enabled him, however, to see far into the future and to succeed where others, endowed with similar energy and tenacity, might have fallen short in their attainment.

From his earliest connection with the industry he had, indeed, an immense and unshakable faith in the future of oil, which was supported by a genius for organization-and an unquenchable zest for work. His reward came to him in the varied forms of power, wealth, and achievement.

Deterding was born in Amsterdam in 1866. The fourth child in a family of five, he came of sturdy seafaring stock. His father, who was a master mariner, died when Deterding was six years old, and owing to the financial straits to which his family was then reduced his education was limited to attendance until the age of 16 at the Higher Citizens' School in Amsterdam.

On leaving school he entered the service of the Twentsche Bank where, though his position was a humble one, he soon developed that remarkable aptitude for handling figures which was to prove one of the secrets of his success. The routine and slow promotion of a banking career were little to Deterding's taste, and in search of fresh opportunity, he soon turned his eyes to the East. At an examination of candidates for posts in the Dutch East Indies he succeeded in obtaining the first place and shortly afterwards was appointed to the Eastern staff of the Netherlands Trading Society. It was not until he had served for some years with that firm that he came to be associated with the oil industry, then in its pioneering stage.

On May 15, 1896, at the age of 30, Deterding accepted a position with the Royal Dutch Oil Company, whose managing director at that time was Mr. J. B. A. Kessler. Success did not come easily, and during the earlier years of their association Kessler and his young assistant had an uphill task., However, the vicissitudes of a small concern struggling to make good were such as to bring into full-play Deterding's peculiar combination of gifts, and much of the credit for piloting the Royal Dutch company through its initial difficulties rightly belonged to him. When Kessler died in March, 1900, it was his wish, expressed in writing shortly before his death, that Deterding should be appointed to succeed him in the position of general manager.

Thus began a stage of Deterding's career in which he was destined to find ever- increasing scope, not only for his powers of organization, but also for qualities of industrial statesmanship which had not previously been called for in any exceptional degree. From the first he perceived that in order to market its products to the best advantage - his company must be established on a world-wide basis, with its own terminal facilities, ships, and depots. This goal he sought to achieve along the paths of agreement, amalgamation and conciliatior.

Price-cutting he always regarded as a dangerous expedient. Thus it was characteristic of Deterding's method that his first step as managing director was to reach an understanding with his four local Dutch competitors. That was followed three years later by the formation in conjunction with Sir Marcus Samuel, afterwards the first Lord Bearsted, the founder of the Shell Transport and Trading Company, of a large-scale distributing concern under the name of Asiatic Petroleum Limited.

But Deterding did not rest content with those achievements. In his mind there was already maturing the conception of a single selling organization embracing all the leading oil producers, and it was to the realization of this project that he then devoted. himself, encouraged by the tremendous expansion which the oil industry was undergoing in every part of the world. Gradually, and to a great extent under his inspiration, the leading groups drew closer together, until finally Deterding had the satisfaction of seeing his own enterprises welded with the British Shell group and certain French interests into one comprehensive series of holding, operating, and selling companies, having a combined capital in the neighbourhood of £21,000,000 sterling. Complete success eluded him, however, for neither at that time nor for many years afterwards would the American Standard Oil group come to any agreement to regulate selling prices.

From time to time attempts have been made to represent Deterding as playing an influential and somewhat mysterious part upon the international political stage, and to credit him with ambitions lying far outside the ambit of his business interests. That he was truly international in outlook none would deny, but it is possible to discount suggestions that his career had any object save that of making his business the most complete and efficient of its kind in the world.

The important part played by his companies during the War caused Lord Curzon to say of him that "he helped to float the Allies to victory on a sea of oil." Owing to advancing years, Deterding resigned from the position of general manager of the Royal Dutch Shell group at the end of 1936 and was appointed instead a member of the hoard of directors.

In the last few years he had spent much of his time in Germany, where he showed himself to be in sympathy with the German government's attitude towards the Communists, whose main object, he wrote, was to permit as little cooperation between the nations as possible "because only then will their destructive principles succeed." Three years ago he attracted some attention with a scheme for marketing the entire surplus of Dutch agricultural production in Germany and giving the proceeds to the Winter Help Organization. Although his first donation to the latter is believed to have amounted to more than £1,000,000, the scheme seems to have met with a rather mixed reception from the German authorities and little has since been heard of it.

At his house at Ascot Deterding had many valuable pictures and he gave a number to his native country of Holland. His first gift, to the Rijks Museum in Amsterdam, was the famous picture of Vermeer of Delft called "The Little Street." Its value has been assessed at 1,000,000 guilders and he was said to have paid 60,000 guilders for it, for the express purpose of presenting it to the Dutch nation. On the occasion of his seventieth birthday in 1936 he gave a great part of his collection to various Dutch museums at the same time. These included 20 pictures of various schools which he gave to the Rijks Museum, together with a number of drawings and etchings. Among them were an evening landscape by Aert van der Meer and thz " Fish Market " of Adriaen van Ostade. To the Mauritshuis at The Hague he gave Jan Steen's " Woman eating oysters" or "The girl with the oysters," formerly belonging to the Six Collection, and a large seascape by Jan van de Capelle. To the Rotterdam Museum Boymans he gave a picture by David Teniers the Younger, called " Village Feast," and another by Gerard Dou called " Toilet. " The rest of his collection went principally to his new residence at Doblitz, in Mecklenburg, where he had lived in recent years and where his funeral will take place. Deterding was created an honorary K.B.E. in 1920, and became known as Sir Henri Deterding, although foreigners who are made honorary knights of British Orders seldom use the " Sir." He was the author of " An International Oilman," published in 1934.