How can I find out the chain of corporate ownership starting from a company name or product name?
October 26, 2009 8:05 AM   Subscribe

How can I find out the chain of corporate ownership starting from a company name or product name?

I would love to be able to take a product like "Snickers bar" or a company like "ABC Corp." and be shown a visual tree of ownership and relationships. I've seen magazine articles in the past that discuss this for specific cases, such as showing that various brands of soap all have the same owner, but I haven't been able to find a general way to figure this out.

NOTE: I'm guessing that the difficulty of getting this info varies by country due to public disclosure laws. In my case I'm specifically interested in US-owned corporations. Thanks!
posted by freecellwizard to Grab Bag (10 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
For US companies, this is often surprisingly easy. The website for a product will almost always have a link to the corporate website, and if it's a subsidiary of a larger company, there will usually be a link there to the parent. Most large corporations are public, so this path will ultimately take you to a site with an "investor relations" section. Download the latest annual report or "corporate fact sheet" and the company's divisions and products are generally described in plain English in the first 10-20 pages.

Snickers is an exception in that it's made by a private company (Mars) but even in this case has a link to the Mars, Inc. website, which has a "who we are" section and a list of brands and products. And the wikipedia entries for both Snickers and Mars are also pretty informative.

This generally works even for companies like Proctor & Gamble or media conglomerates, which have different brands that are marketed as competitors and in theory might be embarrassed for their customers to find this out. They seem to be pretty confident that the average consumer won't bother to read an "investor relations" or "corporate info" section of a website, much less an SEC filing, and in any case there are often regulatory requirements that mandate this level of disclosure.

Of course there are some high profile exceptions ...for example I continue to be amazed at stories that describe "rumors" of how much AT&T subsidizes an iPhone or when their contract with Apple expires. The fact that two huge *public* companies can get away with not disclosing such crucial facts about their business is pretty staggering...
posted by pete_22 at 8:31 AM on October 26, 2009

I agree that, for products available in the United States, this is pretty easy to do, mostly because of laws related to labeling and product safety. You should generally be able to find out the ultimate ownership pretty easily by inspecting product packaging and reviewing public information like securities filings, etc. You may also look to filings like federal and state trade commissions and similar entities. It's hard to imagine that you couldn't figure out the ultimate owner of a product for things sold in the US.

One point, pete_22, I don't think that public company means what you think that it means. There are many cases where a public company (that is, an entity which offers its shares for sale to the general public) is not going to disclose crucial facts about its business. These rules are set by the SEC and provide for certain disclosure obligations, but don't generally require any publicly-traded company to disclose all information to anyone (even a shareholder). I don't follow Apple or AT&T closely, but I don't believe that their activities are going to require them to disclose to the public exactly how much AT&T is paying it for each iPhone or the term of their contract. They may have to make certain statements as to this relationship in their quarterly and annual filings, but they're not required to disclose everything.
posted by iknowizbirfmark at 8:41 AM on October 26, 2009

As for a visual tree of ownership, unless the company itself provides it, you're unlikely to get that kind of information outside of a subscription business research product, though you sometimes can strike it lucky in an annual report or investor presentation (investor presentations are particularly good for nice charts/visuals - dig around in the investor relations section a bit to find these).
As mentioned above, it helps dramatically for a company to be public, as the level of information they need to disclose is a lot higher (though still maybe not as high as you would think) - you're unlikely to find this information at all on a private company.
You can often find a lot of company info of the type you're seeking on sites such as Google Finance or Yahoo Finance. This site is also a great directory of business information resources - it might be worth digging around in the market and industry research, as you may find a report or article that can give you the info you want. You can also search their SEC filings , if they are publically listed, though don't expect these to be particularly easy to decipher!
posted by shewhoeats at 8:50 AM on October 26, 2009

After trying the company website and Wikipedia, (owned by Dunn and Bradstreet) can be useful as well. It can be very annoying as it is riddled with ads, but often if you put in a subsidiary it will tell you the Parent Company. Put in Taco Bell, though, and you get both Yum Brands and Kraft Foods. So you have to read the descriptions to see that they're a big part of the Yum profile but are not even mentioned in Kraft's. I assume Kraft is listed because of Taco Bell branded Lunchables and taco kits.

pete_22, you aren't really talking about corporate ownership there, but product and marketing information. All companies have trade secrets. Full Disclosure: I work for AT&T, but not in the wireless division. On preview: what iknow... said
posted by soelo at 8:50 AM on October 26, 2009

It's top-down instead of bottom-up but the wikipedia's Lists of corporate assets is a good starting point. For media related companies there's CJR's Who Owns What.
posted by Rhomboid at 8:55 AM on October 26, 2009

@iknowizbirfmark and soelo: thanks for correcting me on the iphone, it was a bad example that confused the point I was trying to make. As you point out, the "product ownership" of the iphone is not in question, and my "amazement" is less about what the SEC requires and more about what shareholders will put up with :).

That said, the terms/length of a lease, contract or licensing deal can really be economically equivalent to "ownership" in the sense that freecellwizard is asking about, and can sometimes represent an end-run around disclosure rules or a way to hide conflicts. All the examples that come to mind are in the financial sector, but I'll try to think of one that relates to a consumer product, since that's what the question seems to be focused on. Would be curious if anyone else knows an example -- i.e. a case where a company has deliberately tried to "mask" its ownership of a controversial product...
posted by pete_22 at 10:46 AM on October 26, 2009

Funny you should bring this up... I specifically remember years ago watching the old Screensavers tv show, and a young (haha) Kevin Rose was showcasing a new Flash based web app when Flash based web apps were new and yet to be annoying. This one in particular would require you to enter or click on a company name or logo, then it would shrink and direct tree links to parent companies would spring up. You could continue to keep working your way up the tree until you found the ultimate owner. It was really cool. Problem is, I can't remember what it was called, and it was so long ago, there's a good chance it doesn't exist anymore.

So, to summarize, exactly what you are looking for, at least DID exist at one point in time, but may or may not still exist. AndIcan'trememberwhatitwascalled.

Hopefully this memory will spark someone elses.

I seem to remember that of the 2 or three "searches" Kevin did during the segment, they all terminated at Big Oil. No joke.
posted by swimbikerun at 8:02 PM on October 26, 2009

Thanks, everyone. This is all really helpful information. I was fantasizing about someone building something like the app swimbikerun mentioned and making it easily available to people so that someone could walk into a store, or buy a beer (Blue Moon -> Coors), or perform any other consumer action and be able to quickly figure out who they might be supporting with their dollars. Basically a way to help make the "free market" more of the transparent organism it's touted to be. Get my drift? For example, it's not really reasonable to argue that by me buying a set of lawn furniture that is made with toxic chemicals that go into a Chinese river, and that's owned by a company that also makes land mines, that I'm "voting with my wallet" about the relative importance of these things. I probably don't know about any of that stuff.

But if I could type the maker into an iPhone and have some of these relationships displayed, with certain categories flagged as interesting to me (buy American. environmental, etc.), it might start to really help me be informed.

I realize that getting and maintaining accurate data would be extremely difficult. Perhaps user-contributed content along the lines of Wikipedia, combined with a nice web site and mobile apps. Is this a crazy idea?
posted by freecellwizard at 8:51 AM on October 30, 2009

I don't think it's crazy, and it would make an aspect of my job much easier. There is a question about a web app called They Rule here. But most product packaging does indeed say who made it, although you may have to search the company on the label (Blue Moon Breweries, right?) to find out that Coors owns them.

Holding companies often make for the strangest of bedfellows. Berkshire Hathaway is a good example, as they have Dairy Queen, NetJets, Fruit of the Loom and GEICO as subsidiaries. You may also be interested in this previous question about competitors that are actually owned by the same parent company.

Lastly, my sister used to own a book called "Shopping for a Better World" that graded lots of companies on various facets of Social Responsibility (like gender equality, animal testing, pollution, etc.) and had charts for common household goods. Each section would list most of the major brands and then the parent company and then give you all the grades. It was pretty depressing sometimes. They have a website that is no longer being updated, and it looks like there are used copies on Amazon.
posted by soelo at 11:29 AM on October 30, 2009

Just for the record, it appears that they rule is the site to whuch I was referring. Good work Soelo.
posted by swimbikerun at 8:18 PM on October 31, 2009

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