North America’s Oldest Businesses
A company’s life expectancy tends to be short and predictable. Even Fortune 500 powerhouses typically survive for just a few decades; many close their doors even sooner. One third of the Fortune 500 companies operating in 1970 had fallen by the wayside by 1983, victims of bankruptcy, break-up, or merger and acquisition, according to The Economist.
A fortunate few have managed to survive for generations. Some of these success stories have even become multibillion-dollar businesses that wield considerable influence on the global economy to this day. While the Old World obviously boasts the longest lasting businesses on the planet, the U.S. and Canada are home to an impressive list of companies that have survived at least two centuries.
One commonality among this list is that each business offers a good or service that was needed both before and after the industrial revolution. Many of our most successful businesses today – think Apple and Google – simply could not have existed in a previous era. Likewise, companies touting outdated commodities, such as whale oil or powdered wigs, died out along with their wares.
People have always been able to make money by managing money, so financial institutions have survived the upheavals of the industrial revolution to remain as relevant today as they were in centuries past. Founding Father Alexander Hamilton launched Bank of New York (now known as BNY Mellon) in 1784. With $28.6 trillion in client assets currently under custody and/or administration, according the company website, this financial management firm has helped steer the flow of money across three centuries and is widely considered the oldest bank in America.
Bank of New York was the very first stock listed on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE), which was launched in 1792 under the shade of a Buttonwood tree growing alongside Wall Street. Bank of New York was one of only five securities traded when the now famous exchange opened; today, the NYSE is one of the world’s leading equities markets and its enormous influence can be felt in every corner of the globe.
State Street Corporation, often considered the second oldest bank in America, was founded the same year as the NYSE. Remarkably, BNY Mellon remains one of State Street’s largest competitors; the two financial giants have been fighting it out for 223 years. Financial and investment services giant JPMorgan made its debut in 1799, just seven years after State Street and the NYSE broke onto the scene. With $2.39 trillion in assets, JPMorgan is currently the largest bank in the United States and ranks #6 on Forbes’ Global 2000, a comprehensive list of the world’s largest, most powerful public companies. Established in 1812 as the City Bank of New York, Citigroup has grown to become America’s third largest bank and currently boasts $1.88 trillion in assets, Forbes reports.
The food and beverage industry is another sector that always enjoys a strong demand, regardless of the era. Founded in 1765, Baker’s Chocolate is one of America’s oldest food companies. James Baker and John Hannon opened the chocolate factory at a water-powered mill in Massachusetts to capitalize on the colonists’ love affair with hot chocolate. Long an American staple, hot chocolate became even more popular after the Boston Tea Party, when the sweet beverage was considered a patriotic alternative to tea, thestoryofchocolate.com reports. Unfortunately, acquiring cocoa from the West Indies in the Colonial era was far more complicated than it would be today. Hannon learned this firsthand when he disappeared on a business trip in search of the coveted bean. Undeterred, Baker took complete control of the company and added his name to the title. The business was incorporated into Kraft foods (now Mondelez) in 1979, but the classic chocolate brand remains one of the largest and best recognized in the United States.
Whiskey legend Jim Beam has also been in businesses since the 18th century; spirits, it seems, are always in demand. Granted, the business was forced to shut its doors during prohibition, but jumped right back into the game with remarkable success as soon as the law allowed. Still owned and operated by the Beam family, the company traces its roots to the late 1700s, when Jacob Beam developed a sweet, flavourful corn whisky.
Colonial farmers often distilled their crop into whiskey since the product would not spoil on the way to market, Jim Beam’s website explains. But while countless Colonial farmers churned out homemade spirits to squeeze the most profit from their farms, the Beams made wise business decisions down the generations, keeping the brand going far longer than any competitor.
What is the secret behind families like the Beams who keep their businesses going for centuries? Obviously there is no magic formula or one-size-fits-all approach. However, there do seem to be some key strategies that earn long-term success. Evolving with the marketplace might be the most important.
Take Canada’s famous Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), which has been going strong since 1670. The oldest continuously incorporated company in the world, HBC began as a fur trading operation, but managed to hold on to success even after the fur trade disappeared. By the end of the 19th century, fashions were changing and the gold rush helped cash replace furs as currency, HBC’s website explains. But rather than giving up when its marketplace evolved, HBC jumped into the brand new world of retail. The company transformed its trading posts into shops and filled them with a wide assortment of goods. In addition, HBC began selling off vast tracts of land to new settlers, which eventually led to a lucrative commercial property holdings and development division. HBC also diversified by developing side businesses in shipping and in oil & gas, recognizing lucrative industries and capitalizing on them.
HBC readjusted again in the 1980s, when the economy suffered a downturn. The team sold all of its non-retail interests and returned to its core business, then executed a series of acquisitions to cement its place at the top of the retail game, the company website reports. The strategy paid off, and today the HBC Family of Stores, which includes the Bay, Zellers, Home Outfitters and Shop.Hbc.com, “provide more than two-thirds of the retail needs of Canadians.”
DuPont also learned to adapt to the marketplace to stay in business. Founded in 1802, the company began as a gunpowder manufacturer. In the years since then, the innovative business has had a hand in a remarkable assortment of ingenious products, from Kevlar and Nylon to Teflon and Lycra. Colgate also stayed in businesses by diversifying its product offerings. Now synonymous with toothpaste, the company began as a soap and candle producer in 1806 and did not actually begin selling toothpaste until 1873.
Diversification is not always the answer, however. Another American company found an extremely niche product and stuck with it – for nearly 400 years. Massachusetts-based Zildjian Cymbal has been producing the musical instrument since 1623. (The company actually got its start in Turkey, but has been based in America since the family immigrated in 1909). Run by the 14th generation of the founding family, Zildijian has grown to control 65% of the world’s cymbal market, raking in more than $50 million in 2011, BBC reports.
How has Zildjian maintained centuries of success with such a niche product? Part of the answer lies in the company’s devotion to quality. The family’s top-secret formula – a mix of copper, tin, and silver – produces an ideal sound that has charmed music lovers for centuries. Flexibility has also been key. Even though the company’s core focus remains the same, the family has added drumsticks to their product list, allowing the business to expand without losing its focus. Most notably, Zildjian recently introduced digital cymbals to stay abreast of today’s digital revolution.
Other family businesses have survived for centuries by focusing on stability rather than risking growth; as the saying goes, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. Maine’s Seaside Inn originally opened in 1660, and has remained in the same family since 1756. Similarly, New Hampshire’s Tuttle Farm was founded in the 1630s and has belonged to the same family for 11 generations.
From global financial institutions to humble family farms, North America is home to a remarkable roster of businesses that have celebrated more than 200 birthdays. These companies have managed to hang on through wars, recessions, an onslaught of new technology, and globalization to earn a place in our modern economy.