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Beyond the Conference Room Solution

March 19, 2013

The (Once) Great Company Graveyard

Shelly Dubois @shellydubois recently wrote an article for CNN Money titled “7 Most Admired Companies That Fell Off the Map.”  Although a few of the companies Shelly referenced didn’t really fall off the map – they were acquired and became part of a new map, her point provides an interesting starting point for a discussion.

In 1983, Fortune launched its first-ever list of companies ranked by reputation. Some of the companies on the first list were bought, sold or outcompeted but several companies that were some of the most admired in the world in 1983, are no longer relevance in 2013.

Eastman Kodak
Rank in 1983: 4, Most Admired
Founded by George Eastman in 1888, Eastman Kodak was still greatly admired in the 80s, when it launched its rallying cry to recover from its struggling business. In the first quarter of 1983, the company announced a 73% decline in earnings.  Consumers' shift away from cameras that used traditional film was the nail in the iconic company's coffin. Although Kodak invented digital camera technology back in 1975, it was hesitant to release the technology for fear of cannibalizing its film business. The market ultimately forced the company to retire its film brand Kodacrome in 2009, after a 74-year run. Three years later, the once-mighty company filed for Chapter 11.

Rockwell International
Rank in 1983: 4, Aerospace
Once, Rockwell International was a conglomerate composed of the companies that built some of the most important machinery in American history -- the B-25 bomber, for example, and the audio equipment used for NASA's Apollo, Gemini and Mercury programs.  But, like others in its industry, Rockwell International struggled once demand dropped after the Cold War. Boeing bought Rockwell's Aerospace and Defense businesses in 1996. The conglomerate dissolved completely in 2001.

Time Inc
Rank in 1983: 1, Publishing
Once upon a time, Time Inc was the envy of the worldwide publishing industry.  Time had a stable of powerful magazines, unrivaled dominance in the growing cable business (through its acquisition of CNN and Turner) and its leadership in Hollywood and the music industry.  But by 2000, Time had lost its way. The disastrous AOL acquisition had paralyzed the company and as its industry transformed, Time went nowhere.  Last week, Time announced it would either sell or spin off its entire magazine division.

Wang Laboratories
Rank in 1983: 3, Office equipment, computers
The life of An Wang reads, at different points, like a great American business story and a Greek tragedy. He founded Wang Laboratories in 1951, having migrated to the United States from Shanghai only six years earlier. Wang built the electronic word-processor and desktop calculators that were cutting edge enterprise technology in the 1960s and 1970s. In the 1980s, however, the arrival of the personal computer destroyed the market for Wang's machines. By 1985, only two years after Wang was listed on the first iteration of Fortune's "Most Admired" list, the company's profits start to slide.  Wang passed away in 1990, and a year later, his company merged with IBM, once a great competitor, and agreed to sell IBM's machines under the Wang name. The merger failed to save the flagging company, which filed for bankruptcy in 1992.

Hewlett Packard
Rank in 1983: 2, Computers
Born around the time of WWII, HP became a force in the sixties and seventies, and expanded through acquisitions (Compaq) and is now crippled by huge, expensive labor costs (HP has 320,000 employees) and a stunning lack of innovation.  Since Meg Whitman took the helm, the company has lost 35% of its value, over 75% since just 2010 – and over $90B of value from its peak.  Last year, HP's profit was $2 billion ($1 per share), which amounted to a 9 percent drop from the same period a year ago. Revenue fell 5 percent year-over-year to $29.7 billion.  However, these numbers were predicated on a $9.2 billion write-down on its enterprise services business. This was largely the result of a previously announced $8 billion write-down for the 2008 acquisition of Texas-based services firm Electronic Data Systems Corp. and separate restructuring charges.  Including the $9.2 billion charge, HP's quarter represented the biggest loss in the company's 73-year history.

As Michael Collins notes, “one lesson from these histories is that companies do not fall primarily because of what the world does to them or because of how the world changes.  They fail first and foremost because of what they do to themselves.”

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