Keeping the faith: a family business dynasty with religious conviction

From the early days of building textiles machinery from secret plans to now becoming a major player on the global oil stage, the Schlumberger family’s religious values remain at the core of its work ethic.

When German sociologist Max Weber penned his masterpiece The Protestant Ethics and the Spirit of Capitalism at the turn of 20th century, he had certain role models in his mind. One of them happens to be Schlumberger from Alsace region, which is now known as a world-renowned oil exploration and prospecting company.

The family’s religious tradition, namely Calvinism, lies at the heart of Schlumberger’s success as a business dynasty. Weber explains in his seminal work that protestant ethics such as hard work, frugality and moral uprightness underpins the development of modern capitalism and especially in Protestant northern Europe.

“The virtue of these old bosses consisted above all in their Jansenist regularity. In the office from eight in the morning to noon and from 1.30 to seven; no travel, no absences … If one was to stay in business, one had to adopt this clockwork punctuality, which one could not think of violating without scandalising the personnel and without a sort of impiety,” according to the late Professor David Landes’ book Dynasties: Fortunes and Misfortunes of the World’s Great Family Businesses.

Unlike other great business dynasties that we have explored in the past weeks, the Schlumberger family does have not a domineering patriarch who shapes the direction of the family business and its success is a result of their heritage as Alsatian Protestants.

Like many early European industrialists, the family made its fortune in textiles. Because England forbade the export of spinning and weaving machines, a member of the Schlumberger family brought the designs of British machines home by having them sewn in the lining of his cloak. The family played an important role in turning Alsace into a centre for machinery building.

Though the family made a fortune in selling mechanised textile machinery, the Schlumbergers still shunned luxury and preferred to live in a Spartan lifestyle. Jean Schlumberger described his grandmother’s room as more austere than “a small hotel for travelling salesmen”.

The big break for the family happened in the late 19th century when Paul Schlumberger decided to move his family to Paris from the German-occupied Alsace. The French province was ceded to the Germans after the Franco-Prussian War.

Paul and his two sons, in the best Alsatian Calvinist tradition, studied engineering at Ecole Polytechnique and Ecole Centrale des Arts et Manufacturers, the most elite training schools for French scientific and engineering talents established by Napoleon Bonaparte.

The Schlumbergers were fascinated by using electricity in exploring and mapping subterranean features. One of Paul’s sons, Conrad became a professor at the Ecole des Mines and developed a method of under-surface electric prospecting with the help of his brother Daniel, an archaeologist. Paul endowed half million Francs to his children to further their scientific research. 

The late David Landes, a noted business historian from Harvard, wrote “the family commitment to intellectual and scientific activity was particularly characteristic of national and religious minority clans, people who were moved by cultural values and deterred by widespread prejudice from seeking assimilation into idle sociability”.

The Schlumberger brothers used their new techniques to discover copper in Serbia, iron in France and oil in Romania. Their new enterprise, Schlumberger Ltd, soon became international and was engaged by oil giants such as Shell.

Schlumberger engineers scouted the world for oil from North Africa to the Dutch East Indies. The family business benefitted greatly from the car boom in in the 1930s and as well as the war. However, the Schlumberger’s patriotism during the World War II took them to the US because it refused to work with the collaborationist Vichy regime.  

Though the family left France in an act of defiance against the Nazis, they committed another treasonous act of apostasy: abandoning French in favour of English as the official language of the company. More importantly, the Schlumberger family decided to separate ownership from management.

The business prospered under Jean Riboud, an outside manager who ran the family business for two decades. In 1986, the company had its first ever non-Frenchman chief executive, D. Euan Baird, a Cambridge-trained Scottish geophysicist.

The Schlumberger’s strict adherence to Protestant faith started to break down in the US, Conrad’s daughter Dominique married a Roman Catholic and converted to the faith herself. She also took an interest in the teachings of Islam, which resulted in her daughter Fariha converting to Islam.

Despite the family’s success, some Schlumbergers still watched their pennies. Dominique Schlumberger rode subways and order half portions at cheap restaurants and refused to fly on the Concorde. When she died, she was buried in a plain pine box and carried to cemetery in a station wagon.

 A French family historian stressed the Calvinist heritage of the family. “We have first the protestant faith and ethic, with their emphasis on the value of work, study and thrift.” It is interesting to see how the Schlumberger’s faith and patriotism changed the course of the business dynasty, from Alsace to Paris and the US. In the end, the proud French Calvinists have been assimilated into the multicultural melting pot of America.

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