Suzuki & Co., Ltd. was founded in 1874 by Iwajiro Suzuki as a trading house for Western sugar. Suzuki’s firm became one of the eight major trading companies in Kobe specializing in Western sugar and oil. However, Suzuki Iwajiro passed away suddenly in 1894, leaving his wife, Yone Suzuki, to entrust management of the company to head clerks Fujimatsu Yanagida and Naokichi Kaneko
Through Kaneko’s warm friendship with Goto Shimpei, the then-head of civil affairs for the Governor-General of Taiwain, he obtained the right to sell camphor oil made in Taiwan and established a camphor oil factory in Kobe. Kaneko continued to launch manufacturing businesses one after another, earning the moniker the “Chimney Man” for the number of chimneys he added to the skyline. In the Dairi region of Kita-kyushu, Kaneko set up the Dairi Sugar Manufacturing Factory and entered the sugar manufacturing business. Later, he developed beer, alcohol, flour milling, and metals businesses in the same region. He also moved into the chemicals, metals and railroad businesses in the Hiko-shima area opposite Dairi, where he built the Suzuki & Co., Ltd. industrial complex across from the Kanmon Strait.
Suzuki & Co., Ltd. actively promoted its operations in the heavy and chemical industries around World War I, establishing Kobe Steel, Ltd. in 1905 and Harima Dock Co., Ltd. (currently, IHI Corporation) in 1916. The company also succeeded in manufacturing the first mass-produced rayon using Japanese technology in 1918 and founded Teikoku Rayon Limited (Currently, Teijin Limited).
When World War I broke out, Naokichi Kaneko foresaw the possibility of the war dragging on and creating commodity shortages. He famously told his employees to “buy any steel, any quantity, at any price,” leading the company to make a huge fortune through speculation. Similarly, Seiichi Takahata, the London branch chief, launched a number of businesses aggressively targeting the Allied Powers, believing that even the British government was no more than another customer to Suzuki & Co. Legend has it that even Winston Churchill, the then-First Lord of the Admiralty (later British Prime Minister), was shaken by his presence, saying, “The man is like a kaiser-turned-merchant.” It was also said that at the time, 10% of the ships that crossed the Suez Canal were Suzuki’s. These are just a few of the many legends about Suzuki. In 1917, Suzuki & Co., Ltd. became the number one sogo shosha in Japan, recording sales worth 10% of the Japanese GNP at the time.
Naokichi Kaneko never lost his appetite for business, establishing as many as eighty business enterprises through Suzuki & Co., Ltd. These include many of today’s leading corporations: Kobe Steel, Ltd., Teijin Limited, Taiyo Koko Co., Ltd., IHI Corporation, Sapporo Breweries Ltd., Nippon Flour Mills Co., Ltd., Daicel Corporation, J-Oil Mills, Inc., NOF Corporation, Showa Shell Sekiyu K.K, Mitsui Chemicals, Inc., Mitsui O.S.K. Lines, Ltd., Suzuki Menthol Co., Ltd., Nippon Fine Chemical Co., Ltd, Nichien, Nichirin Co., Ltd., Toho Metal Co., Ltd., and Mitsubishi Rayon Co., Ltd.
Suzuki & Co., Ltd. was forced to inflate loans from its main bank, the Bank of Taiwan, as the economic climate continued to worsen due to both the post-war recession and the Great Kanto Earthquake. In 1927, the company eventually succumbed to bankruptcy in the face of the Showa Depression.