The beginnings of Panalpina's history are closely linked with Rhine shipping. In 1935, the then parent company's business activities shifted successfully into the forwarding sector following the takeover of Hans im Obersteg, a well known forwarder whose roots go back to 1834. The 1940s saw further companies taken over and new ones set up in Europe and the United States, marking the inception of a transatlantic network of branches.
The company became independent as "Alpina" in 1954 and was renamed in 1960 to "Panalpina". The new and striking emblem symbolized the group's uniform global identity. At the time, the name signified the "conquest" of the Alps by haulage services linking northern and southern Europe; today it stands for the Panalpina Group's global operations spanning six continents.
The company witnessed rapid growth in the 1950s and 1960s, establishing numerous new branches in North America and later in Latin America, Africa, Asia and Australia. During the 1970s, Panalpina increased air freight volumes to and from the USA. Air Sea Broker AG was founded, laying the cornerstone of what is still today a successful strategy of centralized procurement and management of global air freight and ocean freight capacity. Nigeria's booming oil business also gave Panalpina a major boost during this period. Following the takeover of the Houston-based J.P. Harle Group in the late 1970s, the company began building up its activities in this segment. It is now the undisputed world market leader in the oil and gas industry supply chain.
In 1969, the Ernst Goehner Foundation, which had been set up by one of Switzerland’s leading entrepreneurs of the 1950s and 60s, acquired the first 40% of Panalpina's share capital. Gradually adding to this stake during 1980s, it became the company’s sole shareholder.
During the 1980s and 1990s, Panalpina further strengthened its position in specific segments. Among other things, it launched combined air freight and ocean freight operations between the Far East and Europe, Africa, Oceania and India, and initiated scheduled air freight services between Luxembourg and the United States, South Africa and Brazil. In 2004, Panalpina’s successful long-term commitment to freight services to and from emerging Far Eastern markets reaped an appropriate reward: China granted the company a coveted “A” licence, enabling it to develop its own operational organization in this promising market. In the same year, the Group consolidated its market leadership in the oil and gas business by taking over the Scottish firm Grampian International, and strengthened its position in Asia by buying the South Korea-based International Aero-Sea Forwarders.
In 2005, Panalpina further strengthened its leading market position in the oil and gas industry by acquiring the Singapore-based logistics provider Janco Oilfield Services and the Norwegian Overseas Shipping Group.
Since 22 September 2005, Panalpina has been listed at the SIX Swiss Exchange.