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.)
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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.)
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.
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.
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.)
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