Product companies with multi-generational staying power
October 17, 2020 11:19 AM   Subscribe

I'm interested in learning about the history and cultural traits of product companies with multi-generational staying power and continuous innovation over time. Some change to core lines of business is fine, indeed inevitable, but you should be able to trace some kind of continuous product lineage back to the beginning. What are some good books or long-form articles that provide insight into these organizations?

Auto companies like Ford (founded 1900s) and Daimler (1920s) qualify, personal and home care products maker Proctor and Gamble certainly does (1830s).

Cases where the original corporate entity has been restructured out of existence, current lines of business have completely diverged from the original, or the original entity or brand technically remain but have been gutted by private equity firms or a merger don't count. So IBM (1910s) definitely qualifies. HP, Inc. (1930s) might as well—the original Hewlett-Packard Co. entity was renamed but never completely went away and does retain some of the historic computing/electronics business, albeit the original test and measurement instruments business was spun off back in 1999. But companion HP Enterprise (2010s) does not count as it's a new entity that retains little from the original aside from branding.

Not interested in banks, investment firms, consultancies, law firms, etc.
posted by 4rtemis to Work & Money (15 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite

For fiction, there's Gain by Richard Powers.
posted by aniola at 11:54 AM on October 17, 2020

I can't help with specific reading, but see List of oldest companies and List of oldest companies in the United States for lists of these companies. Nintendo (1889) is not old enough for those lists, but is a personal favorite.
posted by caek at 11:58 AM on October 17, 2020

I don't know if this is old enough (founded in 1946) or has continuous-enough innovation (they're mostly known for alcohol-based hand sanitizer, which they started making in 1988), but here's a profile of Gojo, the family-owned company that makes Purell hand sanitizer. From the article:
Joe Kanfer, the current C.E.O., is a nephew of the Lippmans, who had no children. When I met him, at Gojo’s headquarters, he told me that he began working there as a young boy, and that one of his first assignments was sitting on freshly glued shipping cartons, to keep the flaps from popping open. (His predecessor in the role was a jug filled with water.) When he was a little older, his uncle sent him to junk yards to scavenge automobile window handles. Lippman used them in wall-mounted Gojo dispensers, which he had invented, in 1950, because garage owners told him that mechanics were walking off with Gojo containers to use at home. The dispensers, Kanfer said, turned Gojo into a profitable razor-and-razor-blade business; today, far more sophisticated dispensers are an important part of the Purell line.
So it sounds like they were innovating long before they came up with the hand sanitizer.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 1:23 PM on October 17, 2020 [1 favorite]

Not sure if there's much innovation or histories written about it, but sweetened condensed milk was invented in 1853 and the most common one I see on store shelves here is still Borden Food' Eagle brand same as it was when it started.
posted by Zalzidrax at 2:31 PM on October 17, 2020

Jim Collin's book Good To Great has a bunch of case studies of pairs of companies, and some of those companies are product companies, although product & innovation is not the core focus of the book.

An arbitrary example of a long-lived (~100 years) product company that has been developing new products for new markets but still offers some product lines for the original market (electrical insulation) is Nitto Denko -- but I'm not sure where you could learn about out the internal culture and history of the company in depth. It's possible to download annual reports published by public Japanese companies from edinet (and then run the reports through google translate for non-japanese speakers like myself) although those give a snapshot of accounting information, not long form dives into company history and culture.
posted by are-coral-made at 2:41 PM on October 17, 2020

Best answer: The Reckoning by David Halberstam is a big dual history of Ford and Nissan through most of the 20th century --- culminating in their rivalry and competition in the 1970s and 80s.
posted by JonJacky at 4:58 PM on October 17, 2020

Best answer: Intel is a good example of this. They started making memory chips but today make microprocessors. Their pivot towards a higher-value product is classic business textbook case study material.

A lot has been written about the company from Only the Paranoid Survive (written by a co-founder) to The Intel Trinity. As the former title suggests, recognition of the importance of constant innovation is in the company's DNA.
posted by jacobean at 5:27 PM on October 17, 2020

There are several books about Pepsi and Coca-cola, individually and about the cola wars. For example Pepsi: 100 years.
posted by SemiSalt at 5:36 PM on October 17, 2020

Master Modeler: Creating the Tamika Style by Shunsaku Tamika isn’t really an analysis but it does tell the story of how the author took his family’s lumber business and turned it into one of the best plastic scale model companies in the world (mostly by really liking scale models). It’s an interesting story.

I remember reading a book about how Subaru built it’s American market that is something along these lines, but can’t for the life of me remember it’s title. A quick Google tells me that there’s a book on the subject called Getting Traction but that’s not the one I read, might still be interesting.

I deal with two companies that have interesting re-invention stories; Rose Brand, the theatrical drapery and hardware company, got its start collecting rags and processing them for use in cleaning; and in fact the company’s official name is still Rose Brand Wipers. And F.P. Woll is a company in Philly that specializes in cutting foam, all kinds, that got it’s start selling horse and pig hair for upholstery. The past is, indeed, a foreign country!
posted by Admiral Viceroy at 6:30 PM on October 17, 2020

The classic among product manufacturers is the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company, commonly known as 3M.

Dow Chemical Company is another.
posted by yclipse at 9:24 AM on October 18, 2020

DuPont? It started in 1802 manufacturing explosives and evolved into a huge chemical company. It spun off Dow and Hercules, and other companies, had a pharmaceutical division, an agricultural (fertilizers, pesticides) division and a paint division (they made almost all automobile paint for decades). My dad worked for the fabrics and finishes division for over 50 years as a chemical engineer. The core of its business continues to be chemicals.
posted by citygirl at 10:56 AM on October 18, 2020

John Deere has gone from making a horse-drawn plow 180 years ago to probably the world's largest manufacturer of farm equipment.
posted by leaper at 11:00 AM on October 18, 2020

You can read pretty much until the day you die about every single moment of the history of the Walt Disney Company, which was founded as the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio in 1923. Their nearly 100 years have been a hell of a ride; it's hard to believe now that they were written off as largely irrelevant for a couple decades before roaring back to cultural dominance in the late 1980s and never really ceding it after that. Through it all, they've gotten into dozens of other businesses but they've never left off making animated movies.

I'd say what's interesting about them that distinguishes them from, say, your examples or the first one that came to my mind, NCR (founded as National Cash Register in 1884) is that they're in a business that requires them to continue to sell their wares to not only children but also their parents, so they've not only managed to retain appeal across multiple generations but also remained appealing to multiple generations at once within that entire time frame, and they've managed to thread that needle for almost a hundred years.
posted by potrzebie at 10:33 PM on October 18, 2020

Best answer: Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies :
Drawing upon a six-year research project at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business, Collins and Porras took eighteen truly exceptional and long-lasting companies -- they have an average age of nearly one hundred years and have outperformed the general stock market by a factor of fifteen since 1926 -- and studied each company in direct comparison to one of its top competitors. They examined the companies from their very beginnings to the present day -- as start-ups, as midsize companies, and as large corporations. Throughout, the authors asked: "What makes the truly exceptional companies different from other companies?"
posted by caek at 10:42 PM on October 18, 2020 [1 favorite]

« Older Learning web development with prior programming...   |   finding someone from 30 years ago, difficulty... Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments