October 29, 2003

Great private companies

Matthew says he likes "an excuse to come up with lists", so here's one from Steve Bowbrick via Lance Knobel:

Homework: make a list of very large privately owned companies (Bertelsmann?). Now make a list of really important privately owned companies – ones that can move cultures and economies over the long term (clue: there aren't any).

I'm not convinced that this thought experiment does what Bowbrick thinks it does, which is completely justify Google's going public. But I do find it interesting that even large family-owned companies like News Corp and the New York Times Company have stock market listings. Still, in terms of moving a culture over the long term, how about Advance Publications?

Posted by Felix at 03:30 PM GMT

I suppose you could argue about any specific company�s ability to �move cultures and economies over the long term� (and isn�t that a pretty vague category), but here�s a list of the U.S.�s largest private companies. A substantial bunch of characters. On the media end, not included here, you could also add Hearst and Freedom (a key player in libertarian political circles). Am sure there are more. Most of the companies that make stuff work (distributors, for example) are private. Without them, we�d never get our magazines or liquor. Is that moving cultures?

Posted by: Matthew on October 29, 2003 03:45 PM

And Mars -- I'd say it's definitely changed the culture: it bears as much responsibility as anyone for the cultures of obesity and instant gratification.

Posted by: Felix on October 29, 2003 04:09 PM

Quark, makers of Xpress, changed the publishing world...

Posted by: Stefan Geens on October 29, 2003 04:18 PM

DeBeers more or less invented the diamond as an object of desire, creating a multibillion dollar industry...

Posted by: Felix on October 29, 2003 04:31 PM

Wolfram Research, makers of Mathematica; that company's effect on econometrics, applied physics and engineering is huge though indirectly felt.

Posted by: Stefan Geens on October 29, 2003 04:58 PM

tetra-pak. you can't move culture if you can't carry your ribena around in a convenient spill-proof lightweight container.

and ikea. can't buy shares in that. that's a culture mover if ever there was one.

hang on, why are both these companies swedish?

Posted by: eurof on October 29, 2003 05:04 PM

Some good suggestions above. For me, however, Quark and Wolfram -- inventors of extraordinary products -- are too niche to qualify for what Bowbrick was on about. And don't even get me started on how Quark comprehensively dropped the ball after a great start.

What about Lego?

Posted by: Lance Knobel on October 29, 2003 06:12 PM

Levi Strauss, from that Forbes list. 501s must rank up there in terms of cultural icons.

Posted by: Matthew on October 29, 2003 08:16 PM

I think the question is about the 'long term'. Quark and Ikea have done their bit, but in 100 years will it have mattered?
I admit I can only think of public companies that have been so influential: Ford, the English East India Company, that sort of thing.

Posted by: jame on October 30, 2003 03:44 AM

Not sure what this is proving. The argument seems to be that you need to be somehow empowered by access to the public markets in order to unlock the much-sought ability to �move cultures and economies over the long term�.

Isn't the reality precisely the other way round - once you have a successful, culture/economy moving company it is worth a shitload of money, and being the sensible capitalist genius that you are you want to capitalise on said fact by cashing in without having to sell the company?

That is surely the case with Google - if they are genuinely making $150m on $500m revenues there seems little real need for them to IPO.

Posted by: mark zerdin on October 30, 2003 11:48 AM

Oh, plus in the case of Google I suspect the VCs who funded them initially might have some mild interest in taking advantage of a $15bn valuation to exit an investment they probably bought into at $10-15m.....

Posted by: mark zerdin on October 30, 2003 11:51 AM

Yay ray Mark. Any sucessful comapany owner who doesn't diversify their portfolio risks ending up like the Bearing Trust, without a penny.

Posted by: charles on October 30, 2003 02:06 PM