One of the most significant shifts in American business over the last several decades has been the shrinking number of big corporations headquartered in New York City.  At first, some moved “upstate” to the New York suburbs and to Connecticut.  But more recently, Dallas-Fort Worth has been the single biggest magnet, attracting such giant companies as ExxonMobil.  At the same time, the rise of Silicon Valley has increased the importance of the San Francisco Bay Area.  Older industrial cities including Chicago, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh have lost many headquarters.  Perhaps even more important is the rise of smaller cities, the spreading of corporate headquarters to more communities.  All of these trends are likely to continue.

If we look at America’s fifty largest public companies ranked by revenues, as reported by Fortune magazine, in 1970, 1995, and 2019 – roughly twenty-five years apart – we see these shifts among the most common locations:

Here is more extensive data on the top fifty, by state, ranked by the number of headquarters in 2019:

If we focus on more specific, smaller geographies, but the ones with the most headquarters, the decline of Manhattan itself stands out (note that Seattle and Dallas-Fort Worth are on the same line, so only Seattle is visible in the chart):

These shifts result from both the relocation of existing companies, usually to save costs, and the rise and fall of industries.  In 1970, Akron had two of the top fifty companies; now it has none as the tire industry has become less important relative to the overall size of the economy.  Former top industries like steel and chemicals no longer have as many giant companies.  On the other hand, high tech, health insurance companies, and pharmaceutical wholesalers have risen up the ranks.  The biggest drug wholesaler, McKesson (the 8th largest company), moved from the Bay Area to Dallas-Fort Worth.

Other businesses follow these movements, whether moving their headquarters or expanding their offices and branches.  Law, accounting, marketing, and consulting firms are among those drawn to corporate offices like insects to a light.  In the past, almost all the largest banks except San Francisco’s Bank of America were based in Manhattan.  Today Bank of America has moved to Charlotte, was replaced in California by Wells Fargo, and only two of the big four, JPMorgan Chase and Citicorp, are still domiciled in New York City.  Even the relative importance of airline hubs can be affected by these corporate movements.

These trends also mean that the labor pool shifts.  The types of people needed in corporate offices and the ancillary services that serve them become more abundant in the rising cities.

These shifts apply to big company headquarters in general, not just the top fifty companies.

Despite all this, some industries seem more “stuck in place” than others.  New York City still dominates in finance, print media, broadcasting, and fashion, while the entertainment industry remains anchored in Los Angeles.   

Such shifts are also taking place globally, as more Chinese, Indian, and other companies rise in size.  The United States is “losing share” of giant company headquarters, which makes the global decline of New York City even more dramatic.

These gradual, “glacial” changes in the business world can be missed when we focus on the short term.  Only by looking back over the decades does the enormity of such shifts become clear.  We at the American Business History Center will continue providing you with this longer-term perspective.

(To see the largest American companies’ names, check out this chart for 1994-2019 and this chart for 1954-1993.)

Gary Hoover

Executive Director

American Business History Center

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