10 Companies That Completely Reinvented Themselves

A Western Union office in Lisbon, Portugal. Once best-known for telegrams, Western Union has reinvented itself as a money transfer business. Brent Winebrenner/Lonely Planet Images/Gett Images

A successful company is like a great white shark. In its prime, it chews up the competition, but if it dares to sit still for too long, it dies. Some of the world's most profitable and enduring companies have achieved their long track record of success by constantly reinventing themselves.

Cell phone maker Nokia started off selling rubber boots. The oil giant Shell used to import and sell actual shells. But these companies and the eight others on our list adapted with the times, evolving their product lines and business strategies to stay one step ahead of their customers' needs. In business, it's better to be a chameleon than a great white.

Let's launch our list of the 10 companies that completely reinvented themselves with a lumbering tech giant that learned how to think like a startup.

10
IBM
A woman walks past the IBM logo at the 2011 CeBIT technology trade fair in Hanover, Germany. IBM's reinvention is often studied in business schools. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

In 1984, IBM was the undisputed king of the computing world, with its iconic PC. IBM was successful because it didn't try to do everything itself. Unlike Apple, which built every piece of hardware and wrote every line of software for its computers, IBM bought hardware components from smaller manufacturers and shipped its PCs preloaded with Microsoft Windows.

Ironically, the very strategy that made IBM the darling of Wall Street almost led to its demise. So-called "PC clones" soon flooded the market, each built with cheaper components and running the same versions of Windows. The large and lumbering IBM was slow to innovate, allowing nimble competitors to undercut its prices. In 1993, IBM posted the then-biggest loss in the history of corporate America — $8 billion [source: van Kralingen].

The company, which had weathered technological revolutions from punch cards to supercomputers, had to make an incredibly difficult choice: innovate or die. The brave decision was made to abandon the core of its business model — building and selling low-margin PCs, computer chips, printers and other hardware. IBM's new focus would be providing IT expertise and computing services to businesses.

By 2010, IBM had acquired more than 200 companies in the IT services sector [source: van Kralingen]. It also invested heavily in its server business, becoming the No. 1 seller of enterprise server solutions in the world by 2013 [source: IDC]. The reinvention of IBM is studied in business schools as a model of corporate evolution in the Internet age.

9
Berkshire Hathaway
Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett once said that his takeover of the textile company was his worst trade. But it gave him a name for his powerful investing firm. Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

In 2013, Warren Buffett was the fourth wealthiest person on the planet, worth a reported $58.5 billion, thanks to a lifetime of savvy investments through his holding company Berkshire Hathaway [source: Forbes]. A Nebraska native, Buffett is nicknamed the "Oracle of Omaha" for his nearly prophetic intuition for picking winning stocks.

But few people know the strange story behind the creation of Berkshire Hathaway, the global investment powerhouse. In 1927, the Hathaway Manufacturing Co. built a textile mill in New Bedford, Mass. In 1955, it merged with Berkshire Fine Spinning Associates to become Berkshire Hathaway [source: Hudson].

In the early 1960s, the U.S. textile industry was shrinking, and Buffett started buying Berkshire Hathaway stock for cheap and selling it back to the company for a profit. Then the company owners made a critical mistake — they made Buffett mad. The CEO quoted a price to Buffett on a package of stock, but tried to lowball him when it came to the actual sale. A peeved Buffett responded by buying a majority stake in the company and forcing the owners out [source: Hudson].

Buffett eliminated the textile business in 1985 because of foreign competition, but kept the company's name as the corporate holding company for his billions of dollars in global investments. It's hard to imagine a more profitable corporate reinvention that Buffett's takeover of Berkshire Hathaway.

8
Royal Dutch Shell
That shell logo is not just a symbol; it's a nod to the company's beginnings as a decorative shell importer. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

One of the world's largest and richest energy companies can trace its beginnings to a small antique store in London's East End. In the 1830s, Marcus Samuel ran an antiques and collectibles shop specializing in decorative shells he imported from the Far East. His sons expanded this into a broader import/export business. Their ships would leave London stocked with machinery and tools and return from Japan and China with rice, silk and copperware [source: Shell].

By the late 19th century, the stage was set for a global oil boom. The internal combustion engine was fueling a transportation revolution that ran on oil. The Samuels built the world's first bulk oil tanker to navigate the Suez Canal in 1892, adding tremendous efficiency to the oil delivery pipeline to Europe. In 1897, they renamed their shipping business the Shell Transport and Trading Company [source: Shell].

In the early 20th century, Shell merged with Royal Dutch Petroleum — its closest competitor in Far East oil fields — to join forces against John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil. The new Royal Dutch Shell Group replaced its former logo, a mussel shell, with the scallop shell, now visible at 44,000 Shell stations worldwide [source: Shell].

7
Nokia
Nokia CEO Stephen Elop unveils Nokia latest products in Abu Dhabi in 2013. Nokia introduced the very first ringtone in 1994, based on a classical guitar piece called “Gran Vals.” Quite a change from its beginnings selling rubber boots KARIM SAHIB/AFP/Getty Images

In 1871, Finnish mining engineer Fredrik Idestam built a second paper mill on the banks of the Nokianvirta River near the town of Nokia in southwest Finland. He named his paper company Nokia Ab. In 1898, the Finnish Rubber Works began manufacturing rubber tires and galoshes. The companies were joined by a third manufacturer, the Finnish Cable Works, in 1912, eventually becoming the Nokia Corporation [source: Nokia]. Nokia brand rubber boots, with their clean and colorful design, were the company's first breakout success.

In 1963, Nokia's electronics division began making radio phones for the military and emergency services. By the late 1970s and early 80s, Nokia was making the world's first commercial radio phones and car phones, cumbersome devices weighing a few pounds each. In the 1990s, Nokia sold off its rubber and paper divisions and focused exclusively on cell phones operating on the newly minted digital GSM network.

For an impressive 14 consecutive years — 1998 to 2012 — Nokia sold more cell phones than any other company in the world [source: Williamson]. (Admit it, you owned a Nokia flip phone in 2007.) But by 2014, Nokia was trying to find its footing in the smartphone market [source: Dediu]. Might be time for another reinvention.

6
Nintendo
Legendary video game producer Shigeru Miyamoto kicks off Nintendo's showcase at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) 2013 at the Los Angeles Convention Center. Nintendo started off selling playing cards. Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

The history of Nintendo began long before the Japanese gaming company released its monstrously popular Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) console in 1985. Nintendo Koppai was founded all the way back in 1889 as a playing card company by Fusajiro Yamauchi [source: Jones]. In 1949, Fusajiro suffered a stroke and his 22-year-old grandson Hiroshi took over [source: Melia]. Over the next 63 years, Hiroshi Yamauchi would transform Nintendo into the world's most successful gaming company.

Anxious about the limited market for playing cards, Yamauchi tested other products and services, including a taxi company, instant rice, hourly hotels (wink-wink) and toys [source: Jones]. Nintendo had its first hit toy in 1963 with the Ultra Hand, an extendable plastic grabber with suction-cup fingers. Taking an interest in video game popularity, Nintendo got the rights to distribute the Magnavox Odyssey in Japan, the world's first home video game console. In 1977, Nintendo released its first game console, the TV-Game 6, offering six versions of the same tennis game; it was eclipsed by Atari's iconic 2600 console [source: CBBC].

Yamauchi's big break came at the arcade. In 1980, legendary Nintendo video game designer Shigeru Miyamoto created the first arcade version of "Donkey Kong," featuring the hammer-wielding hero who would become Mario [source: CBBC]. When the NES console arrived in the U.S. in 1985, it featured Miyamoto's classic "Super Mario Bros." launching the best-selling video game franchise of the next three decades. Yamauchi remained at the helm of Nintendo until his death in 2013 at the age of 85 [source: Melia].

5
Western Union
People walk past a Western Union office in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Western Union is so popular for remittances that agencies use its money transfer statistics to track the global movement of migrant labor. MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP/Getty Images

Samuel Morse sent the first telegraph message from Washington, D.C. to Baltimore, Md., in 1844, introducing the world to long-distance communication. Entrepreneurs rushed in to capitalize on this revolutionary technology, laying miles of telegraph lines to connect America's young cities. One of those fledgling telegraph companies was the New-York and Mississippi Valley Printing Telegraph Company, founded in 1851. The company soon merged with competing telegraph networks and changed its name to Western Union [source: Western Union].

At the peak of popularity, Western Union sent out more than 200 million telegrams in 1929 [source: Frierman]. That business declined with the advent of cheaper long-distance phone service and was finished off by the Internet. Fortunately, the company has always had diverse interests. It started its wire money transfer business back in 1871 [source: Western Union].

The company also introduced a fax service in 1935, launched the first commercial communications satellite in 1974 and started one of the first commercial e-mail services, EasyLink, in 1982. Today, Western Union is the world's largest money transfer service with more than 515,000 agent locations in 200 countries [source: Western Union]. The company sent its last telegram in 2006 [source: AP].

4
Wipro
Wipro Technologies chairman Azeem Premji speaks during the announcement of his company's financial results at its headquarters in Bangalore, India in 2013. Wipro started out selling vegetable oil. STRDEL/AFP/Getty Images

Wipro is one of the world's largest and most successful IT services companies. Known as the "IBM of India," its 145,000 global employees serve more than 900 clients in 61 countries [source: Wipro]. With billions of dollars in annual revenue from IT outsourcing and software engineering, it's more than a little surprising to learn that Wipro is short for Western India Vegetable Products.

In 1945, Wipro began manufacturing and selling vegetable oil to Indian housewives. Over the next two decades, the company diversified into soaps, detergent, talcum powder, light bulbs and other consumer goods. It wasn't until 21-year-old Azim Premji took over the company from his father in 1966 that Wipro first expanded into IT [source: Rao].

Premji moved the company's headquarters to Bangalore — India's Silicon Valley —in the 1980s, and started building PCs and designing enterprise software. Today, more than half of Wipro's $6.9 billion revenue comes from the U.S., where it provides outsourced research and development and IT consulting services [source: Wipro]. Wipro still sells toiletries, lighting and other consumer goods under a corporate subsidiary called Wipro Enterprises Limited.

3
National Geographic
An example of the edgier direction National Geographic has taken can be seen with this shot from the 2012 Summer Television Critics Association tour. Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

The National Geographic Society published its first magazine in 1888 and printed its first stunning color photographs of far-flung locations, wild animals and exotic cultures in 1914 [source: Motavalli]. The yellow-bound magazine became a coffee-table staple for generations of American families, but started to hemorrhage subscribers in the 1990s as younger readers dismissed it as their grandparent's mag.

National Geographic Society CEO John Fahey didn't wait around for his publication to suffer the same fate as iconic photo magazines like Life. Instead, he spearheaded an effort to reinvent the National Geographic brand across all media platforms, especially the National Geographic Channel, launched in 2001 [source: Motavalli].

In its TV programming, National Geographic shifted from sober nature documentaries toward an eclectic mix of reality series like "Ultimate Survival Alaska," "Border Wars" and "Polygamy USA." Some of the credit for National Geographic's transformation belongs to Rupert Murdoch, a majority shareholder who is no stranger to sensationalistic success [source: Motavalli]. Meanwhile, social networking and photo-sharing sites have given National Geographic a whole new way to showcase its gorgeous, award-winning photography.

2
American Express
Credit cards fill a window display at American Express headquarters in New York City. American Express actually started out as a package delivery service. John Moore/Getty Images

American Express was founded during the same excitable westward expansion that spawned Western Union. After gold was discovered in California in 1848, droves of pioneer settlers headed West and relied on express riders — the Pony Express being the most famous — to send and receive packages and currency from the East. Two of the founders of American Express, Henry Wells and William Fargo, split off to found Wells Fargo [source: American Express].

Like Western Union, American Express has continuously reinvented itself over its history. In its early days, American Express's best customers were banks, which relied on American Express to shuttle stock certificates, notes and even currency between remote branches. In 1882, American Express began offering its own financial product, the money order. The company issued the world's first traveler's checks in 1891. At the turn of the 20th century, American Express went global, opening currency exchange offices across Europe [source: American Express].

After World War I, American Express entered the luxury travel business, organizing international tours and chartering cruises, including the first-ever "around the world" cruise in 1922 [source: American Express]. But the reinvention that made the biggest impact to American Express's bottom line was its entry into the charge card business. The very first American Express charge card was issued in 1958. It charged $6 per year for membership, $1 more than its competitor (Diner's Club), to establish itself as a prestige card. Today, American Express still thrives as a global financial services and travel company.

1
Apple
A general view of the Apple store on Regent Street, London. Apple has probably reinvented more electronic devices than any other company. John Keeble/Getty Images

Apple has done more than reinvent itself; you could say it reinvented the "reinvention" business [source: Moltz]. Legendary CEO Steve Jobs didn't invent any of the machines that made Apple a household name, but he and his design team made them infinitely better. Apple didn't invent the personal computer, but the intuitive icon-based interface on the original Apple Macintosh blew the doors off the existing DOS-based home PCs [source: Bajarin]. Apple didn't invent all-in-one PCs or lightweight laptops, but it did introduce its own models with such style and user-centered design that no one remembers the awkward clunkers that came first.

Apple's greatest reinventions came when it turned its attention away from computers and toward hand-held devices. Again, the iPod and iPhone were not the first MP3 player or smartphone, but their Zen-like design and advanced touchscreen technology revolutionized the gadget industry. With the iPad, Apple combined all of its recent reinventions — touchscreens, lightweight design, plus incredibly powerful processors and batteries — to breathe life back into the tablet, a gadget sector that was pronounced dead back in the 1990s [source: Old Computers]. Apple's next reinvention remains to be seen.

For lots more fascinating lists and myths surrounding the world's most successful companies, check out the related HowStuffWorks articles on the next page.

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Author's Note: 10 Companies That Completely Reinvented Themselves

There are a lot of reasons to envy the CEOs of major corporations: the summer homes in Vail, the fleets of Italian sports cars, the parade of beautiful wives, each younger than the next. But if there's a downside to the job, it must be the nagging threat of total and instant obsolescence. In the Internet age, consumer tastes turn on a dime. If you make your millions by selling things to the public, you need to be part R&D genius and part fortune teller. Not only do you need to design, build and market great products, but you need to predict what consumers will want three years before they want it. That's what Apple did so brilliantly under Steve Jobs and what so many other CEOs aspire to replicate. It must make for some sleepless nights, but nothing that can't be cured by a midnight spin in the Lamborghini.

Related Articles

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