The saga of American business in one chart! The fall of Enron, the rise of Apple and Amazon, the enduring legacy of John Rockefeller in Exxon and Chevron – see the years fly by! Below the two charts is more information about the history and quirks of the Fortune 500 lists.
Here is an alternative chart that is fun to watch:
Your trusty history servants at the American Business History Center are proud to present our animated chart of the 50 largest US public companies from 1994 to 2019, showing 25 years of change.
To the best of our knowledge, no one has ever produced a chart like this. It took us many hours of research, fact-checking, and hand typing from old magazines to compile this wonder. You can learn a lot just by studying this chart, scrolling up and down to see all the fifty biggest companies and how they grew – or shrunk. The chart can also be paused and restarted, a new feature of the Flourish studio software we use.
Any student of management or history is indebted to the Fortune editors who dreamed up the 500 list in the mid-1950s.
Fortune magazine first published their list of the 500 largest US companies in 1955, but for forty years it was just a list of “industrials” or manufacturing companies, ones which produced products. Over the years, they added separate lists covering “service companies” including retailers, utilities, banks, insurance companies, and transportation companies. Then, in 1995, using 1994 data, they switched to listing all companies from all industries in one list, and that is where our chart begins.
The list has evolved over the years, but has remained limited to publicly held companies, sort of. Private companies which report their financials, like Florida’s employee-owned Publix supermarket chain, have been included. The list has also included agricultural co-ops and mutual insurance companies (owned by their policyholders) such as State Farm and USAA. But big, more secretive private companies including Cargill, Koch Industries, and Mars have never shown up. (In 2019, only Cargill and Koch would have made the top 50 list.)
In putting together our list, we have used the data as originally reported in each issue of Fortune, so if they made a rare adjustment the following year, we did not change our data.
We also had to decide what to call each company, given the limited chart space for company names. In selected cases, we have shown older company names after a “/” mark. In some cases, we have used shortened names, like IBM for International Business Machines.
Another issue is “What company was the predecessor company in a merger?” While that is usually clear, consider the exception that was the merger of Citicorp and Travelers in 1998. Technically, Travelers bought Citicorp, but the old owners of Citicorp got slightly over half of the new company. And the combined company, renamed Citigroup, soon sold off the Travelers Insurance operations and their red umbrella logo. Fortune treated Citigroup as the successor to Travelers, whereas we have treated Citigroup as the successor to Citicorp. It was really a flip-of-the-coin decision, but we felt that the traditions and branding of “Citi” made for better continuity.
Now that we have this database compiled, we can update it each summer when the new annual numbers come out. In the future, we will be making more charts based on published lists.