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.Management and strategy thinkers continually try to understand what makes for success and failure. Why do some companies stand the test of time, while others disappear into the dust?

This week was an important one for those of us fascinated by the rise and fall of big companies. The new Fortune magazine list of the 500 largest companies (based on 2018 results) arrived. I have carefully studied this list upon arrival since 1963, eight years after it was first compiled. Studying this list provides insights into the life and death of great enterprises, which affect millions of suppliers, stockholders, customers, employees, and communities.

The oldest list of America’s largest companies we have at the American Business History Center is a 1917 list of the top 500, compiled in the Business History Review in 1970.  Comparing these two lists yields a look at 101 years of corporate evolution.

(In 1917, even publicly-owned companies were not required to report their revenues (sales), which has become the modern standard for ranking company size. Thus, here we follow the 1917 convention of using total assets instead of revenues. Additionally, the list only includes industrial (manufacturing and mining) companies, so we have done the same to be apples-to-apples. Utilities, retailers, railroads and other transportation companies, service companies like hotels, and financial services companies including banks and insurers are therefore excluded from our analysis.)

Among the twenty-five largest industrial companies of 1917, only five live on today as independent companies: US Steel, ExxonMobil (then called Standard Oil of New Jersey), General Electric, Ford Motor, and Weyerhaeuser. 

Today, as then, ExxonMobil ranks #2 (behind US Steel in 1917, behind Apple in 2018). GE and Ford also remain near the top. US Steel and Weyerhaeuser have dropped out of the top twenty-five. Of those five companies, only natural resource companies ExxonMobil and Weyerhaeuser have demonstrated continued and consistent success….the road has been bumpier for US Steel, Ford, and (recently) GE.

A quick look at the table below shows the decline of “heavy industry,” the rise of computers and healthcare, and the continuing importance of the oil industry.

If we look below 1917’s top twenty-five, we find these nineteen survivors among 1917’s top 200, in size order (using assets):

   ASR (was American Sugar Refining)

   General Motors

   Chevron (was Standard Oil of California)

   Chiquita Brands (was United Fruit)

   WR Grace (has changed industries)

   Marathon Oil (was Ohio Oil)

   Goodyear Tire and Rubber

   International Paper

   Deere

   Eastman Kodak (a shriveled version today)

   Procter & Gamble

   NL (was National Lead, has changed industries)

   Crane

   Wabtec (was Westinghouse Air Brake)

   Koppers (much changed)

   PPG Industries (was Pittsburgh Plate Glass)

   Babcock and Wilcox

   Hearst Publications

   Ingersoll-Rand

Still further down the 1917 list, here are eighteen selected survivors:

   Coca-Cola

   KraftHeinz (was HJ Heinz, substantially restructured)

   IBM (was Computing-Tabulating-Recording)

   Sherwin-Williams

   General Mills (was Washburn-Crosby)

   Brunswick (was Brunswick-Balke-Collender)

   NCR (was National Cash Register)

   General Dynamics (was Electric Boat)

   Kimberly-Clark

   Simmons

   Armstrong World Industries (was Armstrong Cork)

   Crown Holdings (was Crown Cork & Seal)

   Timken (was Timken Roller Bearing)

   GATX (was General American Tank Car)

   Campbell Soup (was Joseph Campbell)

   MacAndrews and Forbes (a very different company)

   Caterpillar (was Holt Manufacturing)

   Hershey (was Hershey Chocolate)

(We apologize for any companies we missed….tracking all these corporate evolutions is not easy!)

A study of these companies, forty-two in total (less than 10% of the giants of 1917) yields several conclusions:

  • While some have changed ownership (e.g., ASR, KraftHeinz, NCR) and others have morphed into very different industries (e.g., WR Grace, Koppers), the clear majority are still working away as independent companies in the same industries as a century ago.
  • Many of the most durable enterprises have developed strong consumer brands in the “consumer packaged goods” (CPG) industries. (We would add Colgate-Palmolive, dating from 1806, which did not show up on the 1917 list, perhaps because it was privately-held then.)
  • In 1917’s top fifty, there were six steelmakers and seven mining and coal companies vs. none today. Despite this decline in American “heavy industry,” companies including Deere, Caterpillar, Ingersoll-Rand, and Timken have outlived their many former competitors, and often done quite well along the way.

Our over-arching question is, “Why did these companies remain independent?” Even the best of companies have been acquired in the great merger waves of the 1920s, the 1960s and 70s, and again in recent years. It is doubtful these survivors were “too expensive to buy” given the massive deals witnessed in each of those merger waves. It is certainly not because they were “dogs” or in unattractive industries, as proven by their continuing viability. And not all were controlled by a family or small group of stockholders unwilling to sell – most are owned by a broad array of institutional and individual shareholders.

Might it be something called “will?” — an idea rarely discussed in the literature on corporate management and strategy, with a few exceptions. 

In his great book The Living Company, former Royal Dutch Shell executive Arie de Geus divides companies into two types: those whose goal is to stand the test of time, to endure; and those whose goal is to produce the greatest profits the soonest. 

In another exception to the rule, brilliant German management thinker Hermann Simon, on page 352 of his excellent book Hidden Champions of the 21stCentury, says, “Willpower and leadership combined ensure that everyone’s energy is directed toward becoming and remaining the best.”

Perhaps, above all else, these long-term survivors had something akin to self-confidence or corporate self-esteem. At the same time, history indicates that arrogance and hubris are among the primary causes of corporate decline. There is often a fine line between confidence and arrogance. 

How do you – as a company or as an individual – balance self-esteem with humility, with the desire to innovate, to try new things, to adapt to an ever-changing world? How do the best corporate leaders draw strength from decades of heritage while at the same time encourage new ideas and continuous improvement?

Only a deep, long-term study of the best (and worst) companies can answer such questions. That is why we at the American Business History Center are so fascinated by enterprises which outlive their competitors, such as ExxonMobil, Weyerhaeuser, Procter & Gamble, Deere, Ingersoll-Rand, Sherwin-Williams, and Caterpillar.

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