In 1983, they were some of the most admired companies in the world. So what went wrong?
In 1983 — the year that Fortune launched its first-ever list of companies ranked by reputation — the world was a different place. The economy was on an upswing, the defense industry was merging the two mega-companies Boeing and Lockheed Martin, and the technology industry was on the verge of a digital revolution.
Some of the companies on the first list were bought, sold or outcompeted. Here are seven companies that were some of the most admired in the world in 1983 but fell from grace by 2013.
1. Eastman Kodak
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.
2. SmithKline Beckman
Back in 1983, pharmaceutical companies were in the midst of combining, Transformer-style, into the massive global giants we know today. SmithKline Beckman was one of the companies that would later get mushed.
In 1989, SmithKline Beckman merged with the Beecham Group to form SmithKline Beecham plc. Medical instruments company Beckman was a casualty of the merger — it was spun off along with then-eye-care product maker Allergan. Separately, pharma companies Glaxo and Wellcome joined forces in 1995 to form Glaxo Wellcome. The two separate companies merged in 2000 to form the modern-day goliath GlaxoSmithKline.
3. Rockwell International
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.
Two companies still retain the Rockwell name; those would be communications equipment company Rockwell Collins and also Rockwell Automation, formerly a company called Allen-Bradley that Rockwell International purchased in 1985. As Rockwell Automation, it still produces industrial control equipment and software.
4. McDonnell Douglas
McDonnell Douglas was once one of the great American plane makers. Before they merged in 1967, both McDonnell and Douglas had separately built fighter planes used in WWII. After the merger, they jointly rolled out commercial planes, including the technically troubled DC-10.
But in 1995, Lockheed merged with Martin Marietta, creating a formidable defense contractor. Two years later, Boeing bought McDonnell Douglas, which opened up the rivalry that continues today — Boeing and Airbus are the only companies left standing with the ability to compete for comparable contracts.
5. Western Electric
Founded in 1869, Western Electric was purchased by the American Bell Telephone Company in 1881, and served as AT&T’s manufacturing arm for about a century. Western Electric built everything from telegraphs to some of the earliest sound systems. In 1926, Western Electric created the first telephone to have a handset, a transmitter and a receiver all in one device.
Western Electric disappeared as a cohesive business in 1984, a year after this list was compiled, when AT&T dissolved its Bell System unit. In 1996, some of the capabilities that had been developed under Western Electric were spun off as a new company called Lucent Technologies, which merged with French company Alcatel in 2006 to become its current iteration, telecom Alcatel-Lucent.
In 1901, King Gillette and MIT-trained inventor William Emery Nickerson formed a company based on a device they co-designed: the safety razor. All of a sudden, men could shave themselves with a disposable blade. In 1904, Gillette won the patent for the product, locking down his intellectual territory.
The brand maintained its strength, even as King Gillette faced great personal struggles — he lost his money in the stock market crash that triggered the Great Depression. Still, Gillette the company prospered such that the largest consumer products company in the country, Procter & Gamble, saw it as a prime acquisition target. P&G bought Gillette in 2005 in a $57 billion deal. Today, the brand doesn’t just sell men’s razors, but offers women’s disposable blades via its “Venus” line.
7. Wang Laboratories
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.