Strategies, challenges and crises
The 1930s began with the Depression, forcing Shell to reduce its workforce and impose financial cuts. Even the annual sports day at the Lensbury club in London fell victim. But the decade saw many advances: great progress in fuel and chemicals research and an explosion of brilliant advertising with themes of power, purity, reliability, modernity and getting away from it all. Many designs have become classics.
As a mark of confidence, the Group also purchased a large riverside plot on the Thames in London to build ShellMex House, one of the Group’s landmark buildings round the world. The ShellMex company handled all the marketing of Shell’s products. Part of the growing maturity of the marketing activities was the development of the global network of service stations where cars could refuel. The service stations, with their distinctive appearance, helped build the Group’s reputation for reliability and quality.
The shadow of war
The 1930s saw oil politicised. Shell’s assets in Mexico were seized and to avoid a similar fate in Venezuela it was forced to concede generous terms to the government. In Europe the rise of the Nazis posed a threat to the Group’s Dutch assets. With the invasion of Holland after the outbreak of war in 1939, the head offices of the Dutch companies were moved to Curacao.
The London office remained open but was dedicated to supporting the British war effort. Properties in Eastern Europe were destroyed, particularly in Germany, and access to Rumania was lost. The US refineries produced aviation fuel to support the Allied air forces. Shell Chemical Corporation produced butadiene for synthetic rubber, a vital commodity. All tankers came under Government control and Shell losses were heavy, totalling 87 ships.
Many Shell staff displayed great bravery in keeping the tankers going and were duly rewarded. Most famous of them was the flying ace Douglas Bader whose inspirational story was told in the film Reach for the Sky. He worked in the Aviation Department of Asiatic Petroleum before joining the RAF in 1939. He returned to Shell after the war, a hero.