Allow us to introduce the Honorable 57. That’s how many companies have achieved the impressive feat of making the Fortune 500 every year since the list’s inception in 1955.
These businesses have weathered economic turmoil and rapid innovation in their industries. They’ve survived boardroom battles and bankruptcies. All the while, they’ve maintained a spot among the cream of the corporate crop, year after year, for six decades.
At first blush, little seems to have changed since 1955. General Motors (GM) topped the Fortune 500 back during at the height of the Eisenhower era when a new Chevy only cost around $2,000. Today, GM is still near the top of the list at No. 6. Sure, the car maker briefly fell out of the top 10 five years ago during its bankruptcy. But it never came close to tumbling out of the list entirely.
Boxer Sugar Ray Robinson leaning on his pink Cadillac convertible, 1950.Photograph by George Karger—The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
General Electric (GE) also holds down a top slot this year at No. 8, near the No. 4 ranking it had in 1955. The venerable industrial conglomerate has also seen its share of ups and downs during the past six decades. Like GM, General Electric received a government bailout during the recent financial crisis to help prop up its lending arm. And like GM, the company rebounded after a few lean years.
One of the most interesting things about this list of permanent Fortune 500 members is how some of them have evolved. For instance, 1955’s top 10 included two of the “Seven Sisters” spawned from Standard Oil’s breakup by the U.S. Supreme Court. Those two companies became Exxon and Mobil, whose merger 45 years later would create what is now the largest company in the Honorable 57. Chevron (CVX), another Standard Oil descendant, is the second-largest.
IBM (IBM), No. 24 in this year’s Fortune 500 with $94 billion in annual revenue, is another regular. But in 1955, IBM was far from the giant it is today. At that point, Big Blue was still selling computers built with vacuum tubes and had just $461 million in sales — good for No. 61 that year. The tech revolution had yet to really start.
Meanwhile, PepsiCo (PEP) has climbed more than 320 spots in over 60 years, to reach No. 43 on this year’s list. That’s higher than rival Coca-Cola (KO), which has improved from No. 126 in 1955 to No. 58 this year.
Executives in front of a bank of IBM 729 magnetic tape drives, 1962.Photograph by Robert W. Kelley—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
While some companies have spent years climbing up the Fortune 500, others have slowly dropped down the list. For example, McGraw Hill Financial (MHFI), the publisher and stock market index-owner, ranked as high as No. 209 in 1994. But this year, it was down to No. 500, just a hair from falling off the list entirely. Can it hang on until next year to maintain its streak?
Here are some other interesting facts on the Honorable 57:
– In 1955, only the top 21 companies from the Fortune 500 had annual revenues above $1 billion (not adjusting for inflation).
– This year’s No. 500 company, McGraw Hill, pulled in more than $5 billion in 2014, which would have ranked third in 1955.
Alcoa aluminum ingots stacked at a warehouse, 1939. Photograph by Margaret Bourke-White—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
– The company in this group with the highest annualized return to shareholders is Altria Group (MO) — aka the tobacco-maker formerly known as Philip Morris — at 20.2%. Philip Morris debuted on the Fortune 500 in 1955 ranked No. 218 before riding decades of big profits to eventually reach the top 10. It was still in that upper echelon as recently as the mid-1990s. But years of costly cigarette lawsuits and a decline in the number of smokers hit the company hard, leading to the name change and a lower spot on this year’s list — No. 169.
– The lowest annualized return to shareholders belongs to Alcoa (AA), at 6.4%. Known as the Aluminum Company of America when it ranked No. 35 on the 1955 Fortune 500, Alcoa fell five spots to No. 125 on this year’s list.
– We were unable to calculate the annualized total return for five companies from the Honorable 57 because of reasons like bankruptcy reorganizations that led to the issuing of “new” company stock (GM, auto parts supplier Dana Holding and fiberglass manufacturer Owens Corning) as well as companies being taken private (H.J. Heinz and glass container company Owens-Illinois).
Sikorsky helicopter during training, 1945.Photograph by Keystone-France/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
– The industry sector with the most Honorable 57 companies is food and beverage, with 10, led by food processing and storage giant Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) and Pepsi. Seven companies from the aerospace and defense sector made the list.
– The only Honorable 57 company involved in the financial sector is General Electric, which plans to sell its lending arm, GE Capital. Meanwhile, only two tech companies have made the list every year since its inception — IBM and Motorola’s successor, Motorola Solutions — showing just how hard it is to keep innovating.
– In 1955, the Fortune 500 included some relatively new companies like General Dynamics (GD), the defense contractor founded just a few years earlier, in 1952. Owens Corning, established in 1938, was an adolescent business at the time while industrial conglomerate United Technologies, founded as United Aircraft Corporation, had just reached age 21.
Man dwarfed by gigantic gears at a General Electric plant ,1942.Photograph by Dmitri Kessel — Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
– The group’s elder statesman is easily E.I. du Pont de Nemours, more commonly known as DuPont (DD). Founded in 1802, the chemicals giant ranked No. 10 on the Fortune 500 in 1955, but came in at No. 87 this year. Colgate-Palmolive (CL) is next-oldest, dating back to 1806, when William Colgate first opened a soap and candle shop in lower Manhattan.
Click on the interactive graphic below for a look at all of the Honorable 57 companies and to see how they have grown since making the first Fortune 500 list 60 years ago. (NOTE: Honorable 57 companies are represented by the black circles.)