Today's biggest, best-known companies are mostly mere teenagers in the history books of business- not least because their main activities have become possible only since the industrial revolution. Microsoft for example, was not born until the relatively recent 1975. We know that corporate longevity is highly unusual. One-third of the firms in the Fortune 500 in 1970 no longer existed in 1983 - killed by merger, acquisition, bankruptcy or break-up. (With so many companies failing, find out how some companies survive by checking out Stock Scandals: Why Some Companies Survive.)

TUTORIAL: Greatest Investors

Of course it is difficult to accurately calculate the exact age of companies. We cannot always say with absolute certainty whether the companies are really old, continuous businesses or, rather, newer firms that were once trade associations, state organizations or the result of mergers or acquisitions.

Complex date calculations aside, we will have a look at a handful of the companies who have withstood the test of time, both at home and abroad.

1. Consolidated Edison
Con Edison - Con Ed to generations of New Yorkers - started way back in 1823, when its earliest corporate entity, the New York Gas Light Company, received a state charter to install natural gas lines in lower Manhattan, replacing the whale oil lamps that dated back to the 1760s.

In 1824 New York Gas Light was listed on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE), and it holds the record for being the longest listed stock on the NYSE. In the early years of the 20th century the firm expanded into electricity, and in 1936 was renamed the Consolidated Edison Company of New York. Today, Consolidated Edison provides electricity to over three million customers in New York City and Westchester County, and provides gas to more than a million. (With energy still being an industry in demand, it may be something you would like to add to your portfolio, for more check out ETFs Provide Easy Access To Energy Commodities.)

2. Lloyd's
Today, Lloyd's is the world's leading insurance market, housed over the pond in London, England. However, its beginnings lie in the more modest surroundings of a 17th century coffee house. London was growing in importance as a global trade center, which in turn led to an increasing demand for ship and cargo insurance, and in 1688 Edward Lloyd's Coffee House became the place to purchase marine insurance. Lloyd's has grown and expanded over the 300 years to become the world's leading market for specialist insurance in a wide range of areas.

But in America, perhaps Lloyd's most famous moment came as a result of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. After the earthquake, Lloyd's underwriter, Cuthbert Heath said: "Pay all of our policy holders in full irrespective of the terms of their policies." This message has since passed into insurance legend, because the San Francisco disaster cost Lloyd's dearly - more than $50 million - a staggering sum in those days, the equivalent to more than $1 billion in today's terms. Lloyd's faced an enormous bill. But they honored it, and Lloyd's good faith was soon rewarded.

3. IBM
A newer company, but one that just celebrated a big birthday is IBM, who hit the 100 year mark last month. International Business Machines - or its predecessor, the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company - was founded on June 16, 1911 by the financier Charles Ranlett Flint.

IBM has had a colorful 100 years, acting as a pioneer in both the American "New Deal" on social security and in civil rights, yet also being accused of providing equipment to the Nazi regime during the Second World War.

For decades it was the biggest technology company in the world, but the firm suffered a near disaster in the 1980s when it failed to keep up with others' innovations. However, a new CEO, Louis V Gerstner, turned the company around during the 1990s, coinciding with the rise of the internet. Gerstner retired in 2002, leaving the company once again one of the top computing firms in the world. (To help you find stocks with similar turn around effect as these companies, read Turnaround Stocks: U-Turn To High Returns.)

4. Tuttle Farm
Tuttle Farm in New Hampshire is an inspiring case of a withstanding American family business. Now run by the 11th generation of the family, the farm is the oldest continually operating family farm in the United States. It all began in the 1630s when John Tuttle arrived in the New World bearing a land grant from King Charles II.

The farm has seen many changes over the 380 years it has been trading, especially in the last 50 or so with the rise of the supermarket and the closing of many "mom and pop" businesses. But they have made the developments that have been necessary to ensure that their business has survived, and is fit to see future generations carry on the family tradition

5. Kongo Gumi

Although they have now ceased trading, no piece about historical firms would be complete without at least mentioning the Japanese temple builder Kongo Gumi. This business had been trading for 14 centuries and was, until 2006, the world's oldest continuously operating family business.

One of the secrets of Kongo Gumi's 1,428 year run was its flexibility. For example, when the temple building business suffered during World War II, the company responded and switched to building coffins.

Kongo Gumi's success also suggests that it's a good idea to operate in a stable industry. Few industries could be less volatile than Buddhist temple construction - where the belief system has survived for thousands of years and has many millions of followers.

Unfortunately, even these factors could not protect this historic firm from the downturn in Japan's economy. When the company's borrowings had ballooned to $343 million in 2006, the firm was acquired by Takamatsu, a large Japanese construction company, and Kongo Gumi was absorbed into a subsidiary.

Celebrating Success?
Jim Collins, co-author of the book "Built to Last-Successful Habits of Visionary Companies," wonders if we should be praising these companies for lasting so long. He remarks that surely the point of being in business is to do something remarkable, not merely to survive. A lot of mediocre companies endure for many decades, he says, but "it's like running a ten-hour marathon. What's the point?" (To learn more, check out Economic Moats: A Successful Company's Best Defense.)

Related Articles
  1. Economics

    4 Of the World’s Oldest Companies

    What enables a company to withstand the tests of time? Here’s a look at four of the world’s oldest businesses.
  2. Economics

    The History of Stock Exchanges

    Stock exchanges began with countries who sailed east in the 1600s, braving pirates and bad weather to find goods they could trade back home.
  3. Economics

    How Warren Buffett Made Berkshire A Winner

    Berkshire Fine Spinning Associated and Hathaway Manufacturing Company merged in 1955 to form Berkshire Hathaway.
  4. Investing Basics

    How The Stock Market Works

    When you buy a stock, you buy a piece of a company.
  5. Active Trading

    Why A Falling Stock Is Not Always A Bargain

    Learn how to successfully trade pullbacks and to avoid being crushed by "falling safes."
  6. Investing Basics

    A Breakdown on How the Stock Market Works

    Learn what it means to own stocks and shares, why shares exist, and how you buy and sell them.
  7. Products and Investments

    Why MLPs May Be a Thing of the Past

    Do rising rates as well as lower oil prices mean a bleak future for master limited partnerships?
  8. Options & Futures

    Due Diligence In 10 Easy Steps

    Got a hot stock tip? Follow up on it with these tips to avoid getting burned.
  9. Active Trading

    10 Steps To Building A Winning Trading Plan

    It's impossible to avoid disaster without trading rules - make sure you know how to devise them for yourself.
  10. Options & Futures

    Terrorism's Effects on Wall Street

    Terrorist activity tends to have a negative impact on the markets, but just how much? Find out how to take cover.
RELATED FAQS
  1. What is after-hours trading? Am I able to trade at this time?

    After-hours trading (AHT) refers to the buying and selling of securities on major exchanges outside of specified regular ... Read Full Answer >>
  2. What are the advantages and disadvantages of listing on the Nasdaq versus other stock ...

    The primary advantages for a company of listing on the Nasdaq exchange are lower listing fees and lower minimum requirements ... Read Full Answer >>
  3. How did Enron use off-balance-sheet items to hide huge debts and toxic assets?

    Prior to its infamous accounting scandals and collapse, Enron used off-balance-sheet special purpose vehicles (SPVs) to hide ... Read Full Answer >>
  4. Where did the term 'Nostro' account come from?

    The term "nostro" is Italian in origin. It means "our" or "ours." In accounting and finance, nostro accounts are often differentiated ... Read Full Answer >>
  5. Can the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index be used to determine competitive balance in professional ...

    Although the measurement and analysis of a company's key performance indicators (KPIs) vary by company, it is important to ... Read Full Answer >>
  6. What is operations management theory and how can it help a business?

    Operations management is concerned with controlling the production process and business operations in the most efficient ... Read Full Answer >>
Hot Definitions
  1. Inverted Yield Curve

    An interest rate environment in which long-term debt instruments have a lower yield than short-term debt instruments of the ...
  2. Socially Responsible Investment - SRI

    An investment that is considered socially responsible because of the nature of the business the company conducts. Common ...
  3. Presidential Election Cycle (Theory)

    A theory developed by Yale Hirsch that states that U.S. stock markets are weakest in the year following the election of a ...
  4. Super Bowl Indicator

    An indicator based on the belief that a Super Bowl win for a team from the old AFL (AFC division) foretells a decline in ...
  5. Flight To Quality

    The action of investors moving their capital away from riskier investments to the safest possible investment vehicles. This ...
Trading Center