"Successful businesses evolve! No really, they do..."
April 4, 2008 1:19 PM   Subscribe

What are some good examples of companies that changed their business, changed their product line, or changed their focus? Significantly?

I need some examples like this:

Motorola started out with car radios and ended up in the cell phone business.

Apple started out with computers and evolved into digital music players, phones, lifestyle, etc.

Thanks in advance!
posted by eleyna to Work & Money (46 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: IBM.
posted by rbs at 1:20 PM on April 4, 2008

Best answer: Nintendo used to make playing cards.
posted by MegoSteve at 1:23 PM on April 4, 2008

Nintendo started out making playing cards. I'm pretty sure they still do, actually.
posted by Tomorrowful at 1:23 PM on April 4, 2008

Noika used to make dry goods, like galoshes.
posted by Electrius at 1:23 PM on April 4, 2008

Apple is still known for its computers. They haven't changed, just expanded (diversified?).

And if you want significant change... check out what Nokia was up to in 1865. Or Mitsubishi in 1870.
posted by lou at 1:26 PM on April 4, 2008

For IBM, they started out in products and are now primarily a services company. Many computer companies make this change, like BEA and Oracle.

Esso (Imperial Oil) seems like an oil/gasoline company. But for downstream operations, they're basically the same as 7-11.
posted by GuyZero at 1:27 PM on April 4, 2008

Berkshire Hathaway was a paper company or some such that got reappropriated as a holding company for Warren Buffet's investment empire.
posted by toastchee at 1:27 PM on April 4, 2008

Berkshire Hathaway started out as textile manufacturer and now does a bit of everything.
posted by fellion at 1:28 PM on April 4, 2008

Microsoft had a sudden change in their business focus with the popularization of the internet, after they figured out it was actually going to be popular. From what I hear, they were pretty much ignoring it for awhile, and then after a weekend of research, everything turned on a dime. This is the story, anyway. I'm not a historian.
posted by SpacemanStix at 1:31 PM on April 4, 2008

Abercrombie & Fitch was founded in 1882 as a sporting goods store in New York City.
posted by junkbox at 1:33 PM on April 4, 2008

Similarly, Evolution of Car Logos. Did you know Saab used to make planes? It's true! And that Volkswagen was Hitler's idea?
posted by lou at 1:34 PM on April 4, 2008

Mazda started as manufacturers of machine tools before producing vehicles.
posted by jaimev at 1:35 PM on April 4, 2008

Mitsubishi started out as a shipping company and now the group just about everything else except that.
posted by mkb at 1:38 PM on April 4, 2008

I don't consider going from airplanes to automobiles that huge a shift, compared to say rubber and electronics (Nokia).
posted by mkb at 1:39 PM on April 4, 2008

Best answer: Lamborghini started as a tractor manufacturer.
posted by matthewr at 1:40 PM on April 4, 2008

WPP Group was once Wire Plastic Products plc and is now one the the big three of advertising agency holding companies.

Banana Republic was once a safari outfitter type company.

Samsung started out as a trading company and then refined sugar then electronics. Now they own a little of everything, including the urban clothing company FUBU. Although most of the Korean chaebols are amazingly diversified.
posted by Gucky at 1:42 PM on April 4, 2008

3M was a mining company.
posted by fellion at 1:48 PM on April 4, 2008

Entertainment giant Vivendi (owner of Universal, NBC, UMG, Activision, Geffen, etc) started under Napolean III as the exclusive supplier of drinking water to Paris.
posted by meta_eli at 1:48 PM on April 4, 2008

In the 1890s Wrigley's Scouring Soap started bundling baking powder with its products. Eventually the baking powder proved more popular than the soap, so the company decided to focus on that instead. Soon afterward they started bundling two sticks of chewing gum with every can of baking powder, and eventually the gum became more popular than the powder. Naturally Wrigley's decided to start focusing on selling chewing gum, which worked out pretty well.
posted by Smallpox at 1:55 PM on April 4, 2008

Kyocera was originally a ceramics manufacturer and eventually transitioned into audio components and other electronics.
posted by bcwinters at 1:58 PM on April 4, 2008

Cable TV channels change their focus and target markets all the time.

The Nashville Network -- known for running country-fried cable TV programming -- was later known as TNN before briefly being called The National Network and then morphing into SpikeTV. A&E used to be about arts and entertainment (hence its name), before first getting WWII-crazy and turning into HitlerVision (which it later spun off into the History Channel and its further children channels) and is now running quality crap like "Dog the Bounty Hunter". Then Bravo used to be the arts and entertainment network (again, hence its name), before morphing into sorta-artsy pop culture, competitive reality TV shows, and 6-to-8-episode docudramas. "Inside the Actors Studio" and the occasional "Cirque du Soleil" special are the only things that remain on the air from "old Bravo".

Also, Yahoo started out as a hierarchical index of web links, like a telephone book. Now it's a search engine and portal.
posted by Asparagirl at 2:09 PM on April 4, 2008

There are a number of unsuccessful versions of this, too
-Northern Natural Gas and Houston Natural Gas forming to become Enron (natural gas -> power, water, trading, etc)
-Who killed Montana Power? (an electric utility wants to become a communications company)
posted by milkrate at 2:10 PM on April 4, 2008

Like many soft drinks, Moxie was originally a patent medicine - really, the only change was in marketing.
posted by pupdog at 2:15 PM on April 4, 2008

Actually Kyocera still makes ceramic knives and thermal printer heads. (former printhead customer)
posted by mkb at 2:15 PM on April 4, 2008

1. So, Microsoft was a software company and is now....a software company?
2. Did Saab stop building jets? Too bad, I enjoyed watching those things fly around when I lived in Sweden. IIRC, Volvo also made a fighter jet. Kind of impressive the variety of weapons systems that little place produces.
posted by trinity8-director at 2:20 PM on April 4, 2008

IBM has been mentioned that it went from Hardware/Software to Services in the last 10 years or so. More remarkable than that in my mind is that it can be said that IBM was originally a company that produced meat scales and slicers as one of their primary product lines.
posted by ill3 at 2:22 PM on April 4, 2008

Peugeot started as a manufacturer of saw blades (that's why the lion rampant). Honeywell began as the Minneapolis Heat Regulator Company, making hot water heaters. S.U. (Skinner's Union), manufacturer of carburetors up until the '80s, began as a boot manufacturer.
posted by jet_silver at 2:25 PM on April 4, 2008

Radio Shack was originally geared towards amateur ham radio, and their former parent company, Tandy Corporation, was actually a leather goods company.

Novell is in the process of reinventing themselves as a systems management company, although they do still handle server operating systems as well.
posted by JaredSeth at 2:30 PM on April 4, 2008

Response by poster: Thank you for all the GREAT answers - I will definitely be using IBM in my presentation, along with a few others. (And I had no idea about Nintendo - how funny is that?)
posted by eleyna at 2:38 PM on April 4, 2008

One of Procter and Gamble's number biggest businesses at the turn of the last century was candles and they sold it with the anticipation of the electric light.
posted by mmascolino at 2:44 PM on April 4, 2008

A much more recent example: Flickr spun off from an attempt at an online game (Game Neverending). The details escape me at the moment, but I think it's like the Wrigley's thing: the part they included as an extra turned out to be more popular than the original product.
posted by epersonae at 3:06 PM on April 4, 2008

Monsanto. (Excellent article.)
posted by Carol Anne at 3:13 PM on April 4, 2008

1. So, Microsoft was a software company and is now....a software company?

I was thinking about the "change of focus" part of the question, but yeah, probably not the best example.
posted by SpacemanStix at 3:17 PM on April 4, 2008

In 1999 GEC Marconi, which had been a major defence contractor since the end of WWII, suddenly sold its defence arm to BAE Systems, bought a couple of US companies and reinvented itself as a telecoms/internet giant, Marconi PLC.

In May 2002, after two profits warnings, 4000 redundancies and the departure of most of its senior management, the company announced an annual loss of over $10bn dollars--at the time the largest corporate loss in UK history. In 2005 the tattered remains of the company were sold to Ericsson for just over a billion dollars.
posted by Hogshead at 3:25 PM on April 4, 2008

Wipro started out as an edible oil and soap manufacturer and is one of the top 3 Indian IT services firm now.
posted by shazzam at 3:26 PM on April 4, 2008

"Glock started out as a manufacturer of curtain rods before branching out into the arms industry in the 1970s," and didn't make the first of their famous pistols until the 1980s.
posted by flexiblefine at 3:27 PM on April 4, 2008

Vivendi started as a water utility and now it's a media conglomerate (there are lots of old European companies that have similar evolved into diversified conglomerates).

American Express started in 1850 as an express delivery company.
posted by mullacc at 3:57 PM on April 4, 2008

Ah, sorry, I see I wasn't the first to mention Vivendi. So here's a bonus conglomerate:

Textron started out in 1923 as a textile company (Special Yarns Corporation) but it's now the maker of Cessna planes, Bell helicopters and has a large financial arm as well.
posted by mullacc at 4:04 PM on April 4, 2008

Berkshire Hathaway is a bit of a split example: they started off solely in textiles, but Warren Buffet bought and transformed them into a holding company—they don't actually do a bit of everything, they just hold companies that do. (GEICO, chunks of Coca-Cola and Kraft, etc.)
posted by disillusioned at 4:14 PM on April 4, 2008

posted by theiconoclast31 at 6:12 PM on April 4, 2008

Polaroid is in the process of trying to do it, since digital photography has killed off their instant film business. Whether they succeed or not remains to be seen.
posted by Class Goat at 8:35 PM on April 4, 2008

How does Amazon qualify? I've been using Amazon to buy stuff since late '95 and now in 2008 I'm still using Amazon... to buy stuff.
posted by Justinian at 9:25 PM on April 4, 2008

I think the idea is that Amazon's original intent was to be a bookstore, just without 'stores'. No grand plans to become the place to buy socks or heaters or soap or whatever, just books.
posted by pupdog at 9:44 PM on April 4, 2008

Radio Shack was originally geared towards amateur ham radio, and their former parent company, Tandy Corporation, was actually a leather goods company.

So was toy and electronics company Coleco, which stood for "Connecticut Leather Company."
posted by kindall at 10:36 PM on April 4, 2008

Two people have mentioned Nokia. It's worth stating a third time:
They used to make rubber boots and car tires.

If you want a success story that is. They are the number #1 company in Finland.
posted by slimepuppy at 5:27 AM on April 5, 2008

Abercrombie & Fitch was founded in 1882 as a sporting goods store in New York City.

I'm not sure A&F (or Banana Republic for that matter) is really a good example. Limited Brands bought the company when it was floundering and changed it to suit their needs - they pretty much bought the name and that was it. It's less evolution and more ... cheap revolution?
posted by radioamy at 6:33 PM on April 5, 2008

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