1901: banking to support industry

Despite a highly active presence in Russia since 1872, Societe Generale did not have a retail bank in the country until 18 September 1901, when it opened Banque du Nord at 62 Nevsky Prospekt in Saint Petersburg.

The creation of Banque du Nord at the start of the 20th century allowed Societe Generale to spread its banking expertise across Russia and help create businesses and industries.

In a move to develop business, Banque du Nord targeted branch opening from the outset. In 1910, its network comprised around 50 branches. Their location in the main trading zones, especially in central and southern Russia, meant that their customer portfolio was very diversified - from the agricultural sector to the significant industrial development in southern Russia. In Kharkov, Banque du Nord financed the subsidiaries of Omnium, the financial holding group created by Societe Generale. There were also branches in ports like Odessa, Mariupol, Riga and Libau. In addition, some branches were opened in more distant places like Yekaterinburg in the Urals and Baku, in the oil-rich extreme south of the Russian empire.

The first expat employees in Russia

With a view to helping the Group’s industrial and business development in Russia, the general management encouraged a certain number of its employees to work abroad.

At the start of the 20th century, a sort of international pool was created, mostly designed to send people to Russia, as the Group needed various skill sets there. Firstly, its industrial subsidiaries, like Omnium, needed consulting engineers from the Paris head office. Some of them were sent on short assignments but others settled in the country for a long period, living close to the mines owned by the company. It was their job to assess the technical aspects of the sites as well as the living and working conditions of the workers. Their advice, sent back to Societe Generale in Paris, helped the management in its decision-making.

Societe Generale put executives from the French network in charge of the management of Banque du Nord. For the most part, they were branch managers from outside Paris with solid professional experience, having worked their way up through the company. Most of them had held different positions in the retail bank for at least 15 years. They worked with their Russian colleagues on supervising the subsidiary’s development across Russia. Translators from the Paris corporate divisions were also sent to the head office of Banque du Nord in Saint Petersburg.

However, most of the expatriates came from the General Inspection department. Until 1909, inspectors were sent to Russia for one or two month assignments but remained attached to the central Paris services. However, in 1910, Banque du Nord created its own service and recruited inspectors from the parent company, in particular Russian speakers. Their expatriation occurred very early in their professional career as, on average, they left for Russia only eight or nine years after their recruitment.

This community played an important role in the creation of Societe Generale’s second subsidiary in Russia: Banque russo-asiatique.

The photo is of Robert Legrand, who worked in the legal department and then for the Inspection from 1901 to 1910. He moved to Banque du Nord in June 1910 and stayed there until 1917.