London calling! 1871: the Group's first overseas site
Soon after its creation, Societe Generale sought to extend its activities beyond its domestic borders in order to increase its business volumes. It quite naturally chose to begin this adventure in the heart of the City, where it already had strong ties.
In the autumn of 1870, Paris was under siege. Prussian troops had encircled the French capital and were continuing to gain further ground every day. The 3rd Republic, which had only just been proclaimed, was in danger of economic suffocation. Between two periods of heavy shelling, Societe Generale's management held a special meeting. It was concerned about the increasing difficulties it was having maintaining its communications with its regional network and corresponding with its European partners. Reserves were falling and it could no longer receive the funds it was due, such as the revenue from the short-term loans of foreign powers like the Ottoman Empire. This was a delicate situation that could eventually lead to the Bank being unable to replenish the cash held in its bank branches, pay its staff or honour its commitments to its clientele. There was clearly a cog missing in the Bank's setup, particularly with the war dragging on and then an armistice being signed that created a climate conducive to the outbreak of a popular uprising against a backdrop of social demands: by mid-March 1871, the Paris Commune had begun.
In the meantime, the Bank's administrators had set their sights on London. This seemed only natural, as ever since its creation Societe Generale had enjoyed close ties with the City, the heart and lungs of international finance. The Bank's shareholders included General Credit & Finance of London, whose representative Samuel Laing was on the Societe Generale Board of Directors. Furthermore, one of the Bank's founding fathers, Scottish financier Edward Blount, personally oversaw the expansion of this network across the Channel. Indeed, he twice used his relations in the world of finance to obtain advances from London-based bankers during the Franco-Prussian war and the civil uprising that followed it. This expedient assistance strengthened the ties that already existed and encouraged Societe Generale's management to go one step further. On 27 March 1871, it made the decision to open a temporary office – which would soon become a permanent branch office – in the British capital, and hence began a new chapter in the Bank's history. Indeed, this was the first time that it had an overseas presence through direct representation.
The British office got off to a promising start. Societe Generale mainly incorporated issuing syndicates set up to back government or municipal bonds in South America and Asia. It then built its reputation on its know-how in financial engineering and became a part of the global trading and banking system. As the volume of business grew, the Bank was forced to move into ever bigger premises. Initially located at 13 Leadenhall Street, its offices were moved to Lombard Street in 1876 and then to Fenchurch Street in 1893. In 1905, it opted for a highly strategic location at 105-108 Old Broad Street, near the Bank of England and the Royal Exchange. And at the turn of the century, it opened a second office on Regent Street, one of the busiest shopping streets in London.
Over time, the Bank gradually and successfully developed its financial banking business. During the inter-war years, the London branch office was dealt in foreign exchange, helped set up payment plans for German reparations and participated in major sovereign bond issues in Central Europe and the Balkans. It was around this time that its business recorded a first breakthrough in commercial banking, rapidly increasing its discounting and encashment operations in the industrial sector. Its clients included multinationals such as Total, Hutchinson and Michelin. In the wake of the Second World War, the Organisation for European Economic Cooperation (OEEC, which later became the OECD), responsible for implementing the Marshall plan from 1949, also called on Societe Generale in London for its payments.
In May 1971, Societe Generale celebrated the centenary of its British presence in its Old Broad Street premises, which it has since left for more modern offices at Tower Hill and Exchange House. During these centenary celebrations, the Bank's Chairman Jacques Ferronnière was given a medallion struck in the effigy of Edward Blount, a British citizen and also one of Jacques Ferronnière's predecessors as Chairman of Societe Generale (1886-1901). A welcome symbol and reminder of the longstanding ties that exist between the Group and its activities in the UK.