Lessons From America’s 100-Year-Old Firms

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In 2013, CNBC TV host Jim Cramer coined the acronym FAANG to signify the dominance and global power of five of the biggest US companies ever created: Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, and Google. (All but Facebook are in the top ten on the Fortune 500.)

What these firms hold in market share they actually lack in years of existence. Apple was founded by Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak in 1976, making it the senior member of this list. Facebook is the “youngest” company, coming out of Mark Zuckerberg’s experiences at Harvard in 2004.  Amazon (1994), Netflix (1997), and Google (1998, and now called Alphabet) round out this short collection of companies that are certainly popular and successful but not necessarily old. (Bill Gates founded Microsoft in 1975. In 1962, Sam Walton founded Walmart, the largest civilian employer in the US, with 2.3 million workers.)

These US companies are babies when compared to one of the oldest still-operating flour mills, King Arthur Baking Company, Vermont-based and founded in 1790. Jim Beam Distillery started in 1795, the same year Dixon Ticonderoga began making pencils. Crane and Company still makes the paper our US currency is printed on, starting in 1799. DuPont Chemical was founded in 1802. Colgate began in 1806. D.G. Yuengling and Son still brew the same beer as when it began in 1829. John Deere began making farm machines in 1837. Tabasco is still made by the McIlhenny family, in Avery Isle, Louisiana, since 1868. Their recipe for its red hot sauce is the same then as now: salt, vinegar, and peppers.

Carhartt still makes overalls, as they did in 1889. Coca-Cola started in 1892. Kellogg’s began in 1894, as “The Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flakes Company.” Target Stores began as Goodfellow Dry Goods in 1902. Harley and Davidson teamed up to make motorcycles in 1903, the same year Kraft Foods began. UPS began shipping packages in 1907. Whirlpool began making washing machines in 1911. LL Bean made outdoor clothes in Maine in 1912. Boeing started making airplane parts in 1916.

Henry Ford’s first cars came out in 1903, beaten by Buick in 1899, Dodge in 1900, General Motors in 1901, and Cadillac in 1902. Late-arrivers Chevrolet in 1911 and Lincoln in 1917 round out the nation’s first automakers.

My town, Springfield Missouri, has its own collection of 100-year-old firms: The Springfield News-Leader began publishing in 1867; Inland Printing (1905); the Landers Theater (1909); Elkins-Swyers Printing (1910); and the Herman Lohmeyer Funeral Home in 1923.

Suppose we could go back and interview the original founders of all these firms. What would they say are the secrets to their longevity and success, even through two world wars, the Depression, constant political changes, and national and global upheavals? Let’s listen in to their words of business advice:

“Don’t get overly-diversified with products or services well outside what you started with. Stick to what works, what you know how to make, and what your customers want to buy. Coca-Cola owned a movie studio, Columbia Pictures, for two years (1987-1989) and sold it to Sony. Be well-known for making soda pop, not cinemas.”

“Protect and promote your historical legacy. Educate new employees about your company founders and the creation of the products and services you still offer today. Don’t let outsiders talk you into completely changing your logo, company name, marketing slogans, or other bedrock identifiers.”

“Reward your loyal, longtime employees. Hire from within your local community. Keep your manufacturing roots local and strong.”

“Make durable, hardy, identifiable, classic products. Keep your promises about refunds, exchanges, and repairs. Make it easy to do business with you and keep your new and existing customers happy.”

“Shift with changing times but don’t chase fads and get back to your roots as soon as economically possible. Coors Beer (1873) made porcelain dishes during Prohibition but got back to being a brewer as soon as the law was repealed. John Deere made tank parts in World War II but then went back to making tractors when the war ended.”

“Keep the family business in the family. Selling off to large conglomerates, getting rid of the founders, voting their children off the governing boards, and bringing in strangers to run things – who don’t have a bloodline to the original business or the desire to keep to the old ways – rarely works.”

As we have seen since the Dawn of the Internet Age (reported as January 1, 1983), dot coms will come and go. Companies that only exist in the digital air will have to find ways to add human values to their work. Old doesn’t always mean not nimble, out of touch with customers, or unable to persevere in the face of younger, newer competitors. Want to see your company last 100 years? Learn the lessons from the masters.


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