Take a moment to think about how many companies you know that have been around for 50 years. Now how about 75 years? 85? 100? Likely the number of companies you were able to come up with decreased as the years increased. That’s because 96% of businesses fail in the first 10 years. It’s a depressing statistic to be sure, but it’s a cold, hard reality. So, when a company not only makes it past 10 years, but joins that impressive echelon of 100-plus-year-old enterprises, it’s truly remarkable. Over the years, we have worked with several companies that have reached this stratum. There’s a lot that can be learned from resilient establishments that have weathered the storms for a century or more and come out on top.
Reinvention and realignment. One thing you’ll hear from companies that have been in business for over 100 years is they’ve continued to evolve. That can mean realigning to keep products relevant as the world changes. It can also be a complete reinvention. Look at Procter & Gamble (P&G). The company began as a soap and candle company in 1837. Today, P&G owns a raft of iconic brands, from toothpaste to detergent. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Kodak, once a film giant in the photography industry. It failed to reinvent itself when digital photography disrupted the market. What’s even more astonishing is that it was one of Kodak’s own engineers who invented the first digital camera in 1975. It could have remained a forerunner in the industry, but failed to realign its products to meet a changing market.
Customer centricity. To reach a 100 years and beyond, companies need to be customer and market centric. That means staying in tune to what customers want. Needs change over time as markets evolve along with the discovery of new technologies and innovations. Companies that stay close to their customers will recognize these transformations, which then informs how they need to change to remain relevant. This evolution is absolutely necessary for growth and continued success.
Unceasing innovation. Harley-Davidson got its start in 1903 when two industrious friends put a small engine on a bicycle. Had they stopped there, they wouldn’t have gotten very far, literally or figuratively. As the years went by, the engine got bigger and more powerful; the frame became sturdier and more refined. Today, Harley-Davidson is among the most iconic brands in the world. One of the company’s leadership principles is “agility — accelerating, innovating and thriving in a rapidly changing environment.” That direction is evident in the brand’s first EV motorcycle, the LiveWire. It represents the company’s continued drive to transform its product offering.
Focus on differentiation. Longtime companies realize even greater success when they focus on what makes them unique. It often takes someone from the outside looking in to identify all the processes, technologies or features that truly make them remarkable. And when those differentiators are promoted, these century-old companies solidify their place in the market for years to come.
Superior quality. Customers have choices — more so now than ever before. That’s why quality is one of the foundational must-haves of any company that’s survived for a century or more. If they failed in that department, customers would turn to other options available to them. And once they’re lost due to a quality issue, it’s an uphill battle to get them back. For a manufacturer, quality can only be achieved by working closely with suppliers. An end product is only as good as the pieces and parts that go into it. Any 100+ year-old manufacturer will tell you that establishing strong supplier relationships is a key part of their success. Ultimately, it’s about never letting the end customer down or giving them a reason to take their business elsewhere.
Focus on people. Long-lasting organizations unleash the power of their teams. They inspire them to generate ideas and see them through. They provide the support and training needed to drive the company forward. Some of the most innovative, fastest-growing businesses give their employees a stake in their success. Whether it’s bonuses or tying performance to base salaries, innovative compensation programs motivate employees and establish an entrepreneurial, thriving culture.
Century-old companies are an interesting study. Some have remained family-owned businesses while others have been acquired by larger companies. Some have held true to their core business while others have expanded into other areas or reinvented themselves altogether.
Through the years of change both internally and in the world around them, these centenarian companies have learned to adapt and remain relevant. We can all learn from their resilience as we strive to be counted among their ranks in the future.
BARRY LABOV, a two-time Ernst & Young entrepreneur of the year and inductee into the Entrepreneur Hall of Fame, is founder, president and CEO of LABOV Marketing Communications and Training in Fort Wayne. He has written and co-authored more than a dozen business books and is a regular columnist in business publications.