The rise, fall, and disappearance of America’s largest companies tells us much about business and our economy. Since 1955, Fortune magazine has published a list of the 500 largest U.S. companies, ranked by sales (revenues). Until 1995, this list only included “industrial” (manufacturing) companies, though Fortune also published supplemental “largest” lists covering other industries like banks, retailers, and transportation companies. Beginning in 1995 (based on 1994 data), they consolidated all industries into one list, making comparisons easier.

Since the expanded list began 24 years ago, the economy has seen major shifts between industry sectors, as indicated in our new “bar chart race.”  Some of our biggest companies are relatively unknown by the general public.  Health-related industries have boomed, including big pharmaceutical distributors McKesson, AmerisourceBergen, and Cardinal Health.  Amazon rises late in the period, as Sears continues its inexorable decline.  Apple rose, IBM fell.  Longtime #1 General Motors now ranks 13th, in the historically rare position of being smaller than Ford.

The only companies in the top ten in both 1994 and 2018 are Walmart and ExxonMobil.  (The AT&T of 1994 was later purchased by SBC, the former Southwestern Bell.) 

Mergers, spinoffs, and breakups also play a role.  Banking, petroleum, media, and many other industries have consolidated into fewer companies at the top.  At the same time, General Electric and others have sold or spun off major businesses.  The chemical industry has been upturned, as Dow bought former #1 DuPont…..but for next year, that company has split into pieces.

A few replays of this chart, scrolling up and down to see the whole list, is bound to provide you with some surprises.  The future will hold even more!

Click here to be able to replay the chart and study it.

Gary Hoover
Executive Director, American Business History Center

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