It was founded in the town of Mondragon in 1956 by José María Arizmendiarrieta and a group of his students at a technical college he founded. Its first product was paraffin heaters.
It is the seventh-largest Spanish company in terms of asset turnover and the leading business group in the Basque Country. At the end of 2016, it employed 74,117 people in 257 companies and organizations in four areas of activity: finance, industry, retail and knowledge. By 2019, 81,507 people were employed. Mondragon cooperatives operate in accordance with the Statement on the Co-operative Identity maintained by the International Co-operative Alliance.
In 1941, a young Catholic priest, José María Arizmendiarrieta settled in Mondragón, a town with a population of 7,000 that had not yet recovered from the poverty, hunger, exile, and tension of the Spanish Civil War. In 1943, Arizmendiarrieta established a technical college which became a training ground for managers, engineers and skilled labour for local companies, and primarily for the co-operatives.
Arizmendiarrieta spent a number of years educating young people about a form of humanism based on solidarity and participation, in harmony with Catholic social teaching, and the importance of acquiring the necessary technical knowledge before creating the first co-operative.