The entrepreneur behind Sweden’s alcohol monopoly

With help from Nils Johan Tjärnlund

L.O. Smith was the undisputed king of vodka during the 19th century. At the beginning of the 20th century, a successor appeared on the scene. Nils Peter Mathiasson started his career modestly as an office clerk, but would end up as the leader of almost the entire Swedish liquor production industry. Together with Ivar Bratt, Mathiasson was responsible for setting up Sweden’s monopoly for wine and spirits. The monopoly can be seen as yet another way that L.O. Smith’s legacy lives on.

On November 24, 1868, in the midst of the great famine, a boy was born in the Caroli parish in Malmö, south of Sweden. The boy was called Nils Peter Mathiasson. Hoping for a better future, his parents left their home in the countryside and moved to the city. The young boy had a sharp mind and worked diligently in school. After finishing school, he got his first job as a clerk at Skånska spritfabriken, one of L.O. Smith’s liquor factories.

Mathiasson had a thirst for knowledge and attended evening classes after work. He also took private lessons in German and English. His language skills came in handy when he decided to leave Sweden, at the age of 18. Like many other Swedes around this time, he left the country to try his luck in America. He lived in Kansas for seven years, where he worked as a bookkeeper and statistician intern for different companies. He also furthered his academic studies at a business school.

Although Mathiasson was very attached to the promised land in the west, he decided to return to Sweden in 1893. His old employer Skånska spritfabriken was happy to welcome him back. He advanced his career quickly and was promoted to treasurer and bookkeeper.

After a few years, he received his dream work offer: to become the manager of the newly started liquor processing plant in Ödåkra outside the town of Helsingborg. The rectified spirit (base alcohol) came from a factory in Dalby outside the city of Lund.

At this time, the two main players in the industry was Reymersholms Nya Spritförädlingsaktiebolag, a company whose roots go back to L.O. Smith, and Svenska spritförädlingsaktiebolaget in Karlshamn. Mathiasson became a familiar face and contender in the fierce battle over market shares. In 1906, he merged a few smaller companies as the holding company Sveriges förenade spritförädlingsverk, known simply as “Förenade”.

Thanks to the holding company, Mathiasson was able to take a step further. He gradually acquired his two biggest competitors and formed Reymersholms Gamla Spritförädlingsaktiebolag. The business was funded by the bank Stockholms Handelsbank and its subsidiary Svenska Emissionsbolaget. The idea was to create a Swedish liquor trust that would split the market and stabilize the prices.

Cartel founder
Nils Peter Mathiasson was a strong believer in the benefits of cartels. His new foundation was heavily criticized however, as it dominated 90% of the market. The critics were both people from the temperance movement and those who favored free trade. Around the same time, Ivar Bratt dreamed of a state-owned monopoly of the Swedish spirits industry, which would eliminate private profits. Mathiasson’s cartel made it easier for him to enforce his vision.

The future of the spirits industry was uncertain. The temperance movement had grown strong and propagated for a total ban. Mathiasson realized that the best thing would be to calmly leave the industry. He therefore supported Ivar Bratt’s plans. In 1917, the collaboration led to the formation of AB Vin- & Spritcentralen. The new company bought Reymersholmsbolaget’s factories for 23 million SEK.

Mathiasson used the capital he gained from the deal to invest in a completely new area. He was very familiar with the business world in the southern county of Skåne, and decided to buy the group of chemicals companies built up by the consul and businessman Nils Persson. The original factory was called “Fosfaten” (the phosphate) and produced superphosphate and sulfuric acid in Helsingborg. The business concern also included the mining company Sulitelma in Norway and the Helsingborg copper mine.

Mathiasson made several improvements to the copper mine. Among other things, he established a new port and developed the workers’ housing standard by building some of Sweden’s first townhouses. The inspiration came from the English garden towns he had seen on his travels as a young man. Recalling his poor upbringing in Malmö’s working class quarters, Mathiasson was convinced that bright, cozy homes surrounded by greenery would have a positive impact on health and productivity.

Versatile entrepreneur
As an entrepreneur, Mathiasson had a never-ending supply of ideas and was eager to invest in new technology. Together with three business partners, he founded a company that manufactured and sold petrol pumps during the First World War. The company name was Mackmeter, a word created by combining the founders’ initials. The word “MACK”, which could be seen on individual pumps, eventually came to mean “gas station” in general.

Another venture brought him into food manufacturing. During his travels in southern Europe, Mathiasson observed that oils rather than butter were used in cooking. He started making cooking oils, and later mayonnaise and salads. This is how the old Reymersholmsbolaget became connected to Karlshamn’s vegetable oil industry, which mainly delivered its products to margarine and soap factories.

In 1931, Mathiasson resigned as director of Reymersholms Gamla Industri AB. He moved to the countryside and worked as a farmer at the estate Norregård outside Helsingborg, before he finally settled in Malmö. He kept a public profile, however, both by publishing his memoirs and by forming the Swedish-American Foundation in 1919. Mathiasson’s last public appearance was at the Swedish-American Foundation’s 40th anniversary. The celebration took place at Stallmästargården in the presence of Sweden’s Prince Bertil and the American politician and Governor of Montana J. Hugo Aronson, who was born in Sweden.

Mathiasson passed away in his home town Malmö on September 25, 1959. His commitment to business and entrepreneurship has lived on in his family, for example through his grandson Göran Tunhammar, CEO of SAF and later Svenskt Näringsliv (the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise).