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A Brief History of Grace

Grace's unique history dates to the 1800s and has roots in Ireland and South America 

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W. R. Grace & Co. is today a trusted supplier of high-performance specialty chemicals and materials, but the company’s fascinating—and sometimes surprising—history stretches back to the 1800s. It is a story of innovation and resilience that encompasses shipping, aviation, finance, and even a classic American beer.

Grace’s founder, William Russell Grace, was born in Ireland in 1832. The adventurous entrepreneur from County Cork, not only would establish a global enterprise, but would become New York City’s first Roman Catholic mayor.

In 1854, he founded W. R. Grace & Co. in Callao, Peru. Its first major endeavor was the export of bird droppings, or guano, —a potent fertilizerfrom South America. By 1860, the firm had established a merchant shipping line to serve the Americas, and in 1865 its headquarters moved to New York City.

William oversaw Grace’s expansion as trading flourished between the US, South America, and Europe. He was elected New York City’s mayor twice (in 1880 and in 1884), leading a reform administration over two terms and giving Teddy Roosevelt his start in politics. It was Mayor Grace who officially received the Statue of Liberty as a gift from France.

W. R. Grace & Co. was incorporated with $6 million in capital in 1899.

In 1914, William sailed the first commercial ship through the Panama Canal; he established a private bank, Grace National Bank, the same year. During the 1920s, the company took to the skies, partnering with Pan American World Airways to form Pan American-Grace Airways, or Panagra, and establishing the first air link between the Americas.

A New Era

In 1945, J. Peter Grace, William’s grandson, became president of the company. Spending 57 years with the company, Peter became Grace’s longest-serving CEO. He was an adviser to Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Reagan.

Under Peter’s leadership, Grace diversified, bought Davison Chemical and Dewey & Almy Chemical in 1954. Both had impressive track records across materials and catalyst technologies, and these acquisitions formed the bedrock of Grace’s current key product lines.

Ever adventurous, Grace bought a 53% stake in Miller Brewing for $36 million in 1966 and sold it for $130 million 3 years later. During the 1970s and ’80s, Grace began producing components for car parts, toys, and sports retail. In 1987, it obtained China’s first foreign-owned business license.

Grace now has 3,700 employees in 30 countries, customers in 60 countries, and more than 800 active US patents. It has been almost 170 years since William Russell Grace set foot in Peru, and a global enterprise built on talent, technology, and trust is his thriving legacy. 

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