With the recent death of Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple computer and chief executive officer (CEO) at the time of his death, investors now wonder if the world's most valuable company in market valuation terms will maintain its leadership role in this highly competitive industry. Jobs was not only an extremely gifted top executive and business strategist, but a world class inventor, with hundreds of patents to his name. His innovations – the Apple computer, the Mac, the iPad and many others – propelled Apple to its legendary profitability and reputation for state-of-the-art technology. (For more on Jobs, read What We Can Learn From Steve Jobs.)
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Now that Jobs is gone, Apple will no longer be driven by his business know-how and innovative talents. But, that sad fact may not necessarily mean the decline of the firm that Jobs built. Many other immensely successful companies went on to even greater success after its founder and CEO passed. Among those that immediately come to mind are: The Walt Disney Company (NYSE:DIS), Walmart (NYSE:WMT), NBC, Time-Life and Ford Motors (NYSE:F).
Here are three legendary companies that not only survived the deaths of their founders and CEOs, but, building on the foundation created by the people who first established and ran the fledgling companies, eventually achieved better profitability under new corporate leadership.
The Walt Disney Company
A young cartoonist and creative genius named Walt Disney founded his company in 1923. Originally a producer of short, black and white movie cartoons featuring a rodent with human characteristic called Mickey Mouse, the firm quickly became profitable and expanded into new areas, including full-length animated feature films, the merchandising of its cartoon characters and eventually television, documentary film and what has come to be called Theme Parks – Disneyland and Disney World.
At the time of his death in 1966, The Walt Disney Company was flourishing. But in the ensuing years, the company grew, diversified into new areas and prospered even more than previously. The firm's strategy continues to be producing "international family entertainment," and "media enterprise."
Today, the firm's many operations, subsidiaries and affiliates are divided among these four business segments: Media Networks, Parks and Resorts, Studio Entertainment and Consumer Products. Scattered throughout this quartet of categories are the many successful Disney enterprises, including cruise ships, Pixar Animation Studios, Touchstone Pictures and Hollywood Pictures, Walt Disney Records, Marvel, The Disney Channel and the production of Broadway musicals, to name just a few. (For more on Disney and other media companies, read Media Mashup: Who Owns Whom?)
When Henry R. Luce, co-founder of Time magazine with Briton Hadden, died in 1967, his media empire had been flourishing for many years. Among the successful publications owned by Time, Inc., were Life magazine, Fortune and Sports Illustrated. Luce was born in 1898, in China, the son of a Presbyterian missionary. When the young Luce co-founded Time in 1923, he had little money and not even two full years of experience as a journalist. Nevertheless, Luce's Time and Life magazines became two of the most popular weekly periodicals of the 1940s through the 1960s.
In the years following Luce's death, a succession of CEOs ran the company, continuing to grow the company's portfolio of magazines. Time, Inc. also acquired properties in other areas, including HBO, and a stake in Turner Broadcasting System. By 1990, Time, Inc. had acquired Warner Communications Inc., making Time a multi-media company with interests in film, broadcast media and print. In 2000, America Online (AOL) bought Time Warner, adding the internet to Time Warner's broad spectrum of media properties. Despite some setbacks and management changes through the years, Time Inc. remains prosperous and is now also one of the 20 largest online media properties.
At the time of Sam Walton's death at the age of 74 in 1992, Walmart, the company he founded in 1962 was already a major success. A simple strategy was behind its growth: low prices and vigorous marketing. The firm was regularly opening new stores throughout the country, it had started a pharmacy division, an auto service center and was profitably operating Sam's Club, a fee-based, member only discount retail warehouse. Assuming the helm at Walmart was S. Robson Walton, the eldest son of the founder.
In the years since 1992, Walmart has become ever more prosperous, earning a place on the Dow Jones Industrial Average as one of the companies by which America's economic health is measured numerically based on stock price averages. Stores were acquired in foreign markets, new means of marketing were introduced, including an in-store television channel advertising goods and services offered at the store and super Walmart stores opened which sold a full line of groceries as well as the usual goods and services found at the world's biggest retailer. (For more on retail stock, read Analyzing Retail Stocks.)
The Bottom Line
The death of a successful corporate founder and CEO may leave a company rudderless and headed towards destruction. After the death of William Randolph Hearst, many of his newspapers folded and the media mogul's empire of newspapers, broadcast outlets and magazines shrunk significantly. The once giant Montgomery Ward's, a national department store chain, eventually went out of business decades after the death of its founder and CEO. Other major firms have also failed in the wake of a founder's death. Some business failures may be attributed to management deficiencies or mistakes, other failures may have been caused mostly by market conditions, changing demographics and consumer preferences and new technologies.
Many large firms eventually became much more successful after the death of their legendary founders, although, often, not immediately. The obvious trend here, with some exceptions, is that often in the wake of a founder's death, a company may be troubled, but eventually becomes more profitable through diversification into new areas, the acquisition of new companies, or by being acquired by other companies.
Although Apple is a giant now, and still benefiting by the momentum created by its late founder, there is no guarantee of its continued success. Too many variables contribute to the success or failure of a firm – management decisions, market conditions, changing consumer tastes and the economy. Only time will tell if Apple can survive, let alone flourish. (For more on who might takeover Steve Jobs role in the tech industry, read 6 Candidates For The Next Great Tech CEO.)