Over the years there have been thousands of entrepreneurs in the United States who turned their dreams into commercial and financial successes. Some of the biggest companies in the world had very humble beginnings. Hewlett-Packard, Apple and Google all got started in Silicon Valley garages, and Dell was born in a college dormitory room.
Before them, arrived General Electric, Disney and Sears to the marketplace. The three iconic names are giants in their fields: global industry, entertainment and retail. Here's a brief look at behind the scenes of their storied histories.
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The 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia was the first world's fair held in the U.S., which was emerging as a global industrial power. One exhibit featured a device recently patented by Alexander Graham Bell. His early telephone and other new technologies captured the eye and imagination of 29 year-old Thomas Edison, who opened his own laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey later that year.
Edison began to explore the possibilities of electric currents, resulting in the first viable incandescent light. The Edison General Electric Company was founded in 1890 to commercialize his inventions and further his research and development activities.
In 1892, Edison merged his company with the Thomson-Houston Company and formed General Electric (GE). The combination of their technical capabilities and patents enabled GE to perform complete electrical installations and rapidly expand. Its list of businesses include transportation, medical equipment, finance, consumer services, lighting, jet engines, appliances and a wide variety of industrial products.
GE's stock was part of the original Dow Jones index of 12 companies in 1896, and is the only one still in the index today. Now one of the world's largest companies, GE reported $38 billion in revenues and $4.1 billion in operating earnings for the fourth quarter of 2011. (For more on GE and its position amongst the market giants, read Wall Street History: GE, McDomination And J.P. Morgan.)
The story of the Walt Disney Company begins in 1923 when Walt arrived in Hollywood with his brother Roy. They conceived a cartoon character that Walt called Mortimer Mouse, but Walt's wife Lilly preferred the name Mickey. "Steamboat Willie," the first cartoon with fully synchronized sound, was released in New York in 1928. This was followed nine years later by "Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs," the first feature-length animated movie.
1950 was a milestone year as "Treasure Island" was released as the company's first live-action film. Disney capitalized on the new television medium with the "Davy Crockett" mini-series and the "Mickey Mouse Club." His weekly show underwent six title changes and appeared on three major networks over the span of 29 years.
Disneyland opened in 1955 on the site of a former orange grove, and has served as the inspiration for dozens of other similar amusement parks. Prior to Walt's death in 1966, he purchased 28,000 acres in central Florida as the future home for the largest entertainment complex in the world. Roy named it Walt Disney World as a tribute to his late brother, and it quickly became the destination resort of choice for family vacations when it opened in 1971.
Since then, the company opened Epcot, several Disney stores and theme parks in Tokyo and Paris. It purchased Capital Cities/ABC which owned several cable channels including ESPN. It also operates the Disney Cruise Lines featuring family-oriented cruises throughout the Caribbean.
For the fourth quarter of 2011, Disney reported $10.4 billion in revenues and $2.1 billion in operating income. For the full year, net income increased 21% to a record $4.8 billion. (For more on the story of Disney, read Walt Disney: How Entertainment Became An Empire.)
Richard Sears was a railway station agent in North Redwood, Minnesota in 1886. There were only 38 states and two-thirds of the population lived in rural areas. One day, a local jeweler received a shipment of gold-filled watches from a Chicago distributor. The jeweler didn't want them, so he sold them to Sears. The watches were a hit with other railway agents, and Sears managed to sell them all for a tidy profit. He ordered more watches for resale and formed the R. W. Sears Watch Company in Minneapolis. A year later he moved the business to Chicago.
Sears needed help and put an ad in the Chicago Daily News classifieds for a watchmaker with his own tools. Alvah Roebuck, of Indiana, responded to the ad and was hired immediately. These two men in their 20s founded Sears, Roebuck and Company in 1893.
Sears recognized that buying in volume and using mail order delivery would allow him to offer lower prices than the rural general stores. As Sears prospered, it expanded its offerings to include a wide array of products through its catalogs and retail stores.
More recently the company has fallen on hard times due to increased competition from specialty merchandisers, changing demographics and a perceived inability to adapt to shifting consumer demands. In January 2011, CIT Group announced that it would stop providing loans to Sears' suppliers because of recent store closures and disappointing holiday sales. CIT resumed the loans pending the release of Sears' financial results on February 23. (For more, check out The History And Future Of Sears.)
The Bottom Line
The latest wildly successful entrepreneur may be Mark Zuckerberg. Like Michael Dell before him, Zuckerberg started his company in his college dorm room. Last year, Facebook made $1 billion in profit on $3.7 billion in revenues. The company's planned initial public offering is estimated to yield about $5 billion in May of this year, and will make Zuckerberg the world's youngest billionaire.
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