The company was founded by Alfredo da Silva in 1871 and managed by his descendants, including José Manuel de Mello as a family-run business conglomerate. CUF was one of the largest and most diversified Portuguese corporations from the 1930s until 1974. The company grew and developed as a large conglomerate enforcing a business model with similarities to South Korean chaebols and Japanese keiretsus and zaibatsus. With its core businesses (cement, chemicals, petrochemicals, agrochemicals, textiles, beer, beverages, metallurgy, naval construction, electrical equipment, oilseeds, insurance, banking, wood pulp, tourism, mining, etc.) and corporate headquarters located in mainland Portugal, but also with branches, plants and several developing business projects all around the Portuguese Empire, specially in the Portuguese territories of Angola and Mozambique, CUF was for many years the largest employer and exporter of Portugal.
The company had also its own sports club, founded as a truly works team in 1937. It was located in Lisbon's industrial suburb of Barreiro, and was called Grupo Desportivo da CUF. The club was a major contender in the main Portuguese Football Championship but was disbanded and replaced by G.D. Fabril due to the 1974 military coup. After the Carnation Revolution military coup on April 25, 1974, and the fall of the Estado Novo regime that ruled the intercontinental country from 1933 to 1974, CUF entered in collapse. Many of its companies were forcibly nationalized by the communist inspired National Salvation Junta, and the dismembered company fell into decline, losing all of its splendour and importance. After the turmoil of the Carnation Revolution from 1974 to 1976, its communist inspiration fade away from 1977 to 1978.
In 1979, the founding family (the Mellos) resumed its business activity in Portugal and would proceed to found the Grupo José de Mello (José de Mello Group). Step by step, the CUF was revived with the acquisition of several chemical industry assets in the country from the 1980s to 1997, when it was in position to buy Quimigal (founded after the forcible nationalizations as the chemical company of the State) in the privatization of that company. During the 1990s and 2000s, CUF's main industrial assets were located in Estarreja where the company produced aniline and nitrobenzene. Also in the 2000s, the company started to develop innovative projects in other fields. The nanotechnology company Innovnano was founded in 2003 by CUF in Aljustrel. Its main facilities, including state-of-the-art research and development center and manufacturing plant, were scheduled to be relocated to the Coimbra's iParque in 2012.