Christiani & Nielsen – a Danish legend lives on in Thailand

The significant chapter in the history of one of the most prominent Danish construction and engineering companies, Christiani & Nielsen, is about to be written. The decision to formally close down its last remaining office in Denmark has finally been taken and will soon be executed.

Founded in 1904 by Civil Engineer Rudolf Christiani and Captain Aage Nielsen, Christiani & Nielsen was one of the past century’s most prominent Danish engineering and construction companies. The company has left a legacy in the Danish landscape with outstanding construction projects like the hanging bridge over Lillebaelt – at the time the longest in the world – and the Farø Bridge.

Christiani & Nielsen was also among the pioneers in taking its expertise abroad. It established itself very early on in countries as far away and exotic as the Kingdom of Siam, which in 1928 Rudolf Christiani visited for the first time on the initiative of H.N. Andersen, the founder of East Asiatic Company. He was quick to realise the potential of the country, which was rich in natural resources but technologically decades behind Europe and with a poor infrastructure.

In 1930 the company Christiani & Nielsen Siam Ltd. was established. Among its shareholders were members of the Royal Family and EAC which at the time enjoyed an almost semi-royal status both in Thailand and in Denmark. This year 70 years ago, the company delivered its first project – a locomotive remise for Hua Lampong Railway Station.

While Christiani & Nielsen is today history in Denmark, it remains an active engineering and construction company in Thailand with 3000 employees working on ten projects of various sizes and on various stages of completion. The company employs a staff of 330 people of whom about 200 are civil engineers or construction engineers.

This situation is the result of a unique buy-out in 1992, in which the Thai shareholders bought the shares of the descendants of the Danish founders. The owners are today purely Thai. Siam Commercial Bank is the main shareholder with 43 %. The Royal Property Bureau holds 28 %. The company is listed on the Stock Exchange of Thailand and the remaining shares are owned by a wide range of individuals and institutional investors.

Although the company is as such a Thai company there are no plans to change the name to something with a more “Thai” sound to it.

“The name Christiani & Nielsen has today an equally good an image in Thailand as it ever had in Denmark,” says Managing Director Danuch Yontararak.

Democracy Monument in Bangkok

Christiani & Nielsen built the Democracy Monument in Bangkok.

“We are the oldest existing construction company in Thailand. We are well known for a number of significant assignments, among others for the construction of the Democracy Monument, one of the most important national symbols of Thailand. Danish construction engineering know-how still has a good reputation in Thailand so our company name is one of our strongest assets,” Danuch Yontararak says.

His recognition of the value of the Danish origins of the company does, however, not change the fact that the company recently decided to close down its last office in Denmark, a representative office in Copenhagen. It was previously maintained mostly for nostalgic reasons, but with the board decision to focus on Thailand, the umbilical cord of Christiani & Nielsen is now finally about to be cut.

Shortly after the buy-out, the company ran into serious financial problems, almost forcing it out of business. The company had in the mid-90’s ventured into investments in Berlin, the re-united capital of Germany. This was the fist time the Thai operation entered a project overseas.

“We did a major mistake. We have learned an important lesson and we will never attempt this again,” says Danuch Yontararak.

The company filed for bankruptcy in late 1995 and then worked hard on a reconstruction plan during 1996 to induce new capital into the company. The benefit of this disaster was that when the general Asian crisis broke out in 1997, Christiani & Nielsen was already refinanced and could start operating where other companies went bust.

“If we had filed for bankruptcy one year later, we wouldn’t have been here today. At that time the queue of construction companies pleading their banks for refinancing arrangements was so long that the processing had almost come to a stand still and only the very large companies received any attention.”

Apart from its company name and historical background there is, however, today nothing Danish about the company. A few foreigners are employed in key positions, among others Business Development manager Neil Hutchinson and Commercial Manager David Greenbank, but there are no Danes among them.

Reflecting Neil Hutchinson’s British nationality, some of the latest projects are the construction of hypermarkets for the British owned Tesco Lotus.

“Since our re-construction we have rebuild the company very carefully,” Neil Hutchinson says.

“We started out with minor jobs for private project owners. Only now that we feel that we have regained our confidence and the market has regained its confidence in us have we started bidding for public tenders like waste water treatment plants and some road construction projects. It is our ambition eventually to join some of the large infrastructure projects but for the time being we don’t take on larger projects than we feel certain we can handle,” he says.

Having in 1996 reduced its machinery and car fleet, the company is now cautiously expanding. The company today owns 20 trucks, 14 mobile and high rise cranes, 15 bull dozers and caterpillars and about fifty pick up trucks all carrying the C&N name and logo.

The largest project which the company has been involved with over the past couple of years is the new faculty for Thammasart University. The project includes six office buildings and an underground parking lot – a total of 56.200 square meters.

Another project was within its former core business area – road construction. Between 1998 and 2000 the company build 10 kilometres of the four-lane expressway between Lampang and Lampoon in the North of Thailand. The mountainous stretch of highways was difficult because 28.000 cubic meters of rock had to be blasted and the company further had to construct 9,600 cubic meters of protective walls against mudslides and falling stones.

The company is equally proud of a reference in Rayong, the assembly plant for General Motors of 146.000 square meters completed in 1999 – which was incidentally designed by the Danish architects Ove Arup & Partners. And in the deep sea port Laem Chabang, the Danish company Mermaid Maritime Co., Ltd. has recently contracted the company to build an assembly hall and a service facility. Here, the company intends to build and repair rafts and other life saving equipment on license for the Danish company Viking.

“We won the job on ordinary commercial terms, but I wouldn’t be surprised if our Danish roots have given us a preference with the owners,” says Neil Hutchinson.

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