The 13th Fortune Global Forum, attended by CEOs from around the world, was a rare gathering of leaders from both sides of the great divide separating old companies and new, public and private, East Coast and West Coast, centenarians and unicorns.
The clash of worldviews pervaded the San Francisco event. XPrize founder Peter Diamandis favored the new, saying, “It isn’t that entrepreneurs are smarter, it’s that they are trying more crazy ideas, taking more shots on goal.” Investor Marc Andreessen dinged the old for having “shareholder bases that do not want them to do new things, and instead want them to give back cash.” Larry Page, when asked if there was any existing company “that you look at and say, ‘That’s kind of what we want to be,’ ” replied, “Um, no.”
Alan Murray, editor of Fortune Magazine.Photograph by Wesley Mann for Fortune
Such views were balanced by those of CEOs whose companies have survived for over a century and who plan to continue that run: IBM, Wells Fargo, Siemens, Lockheed Martin, Campbell Soup, Levi Strauss. CEO Joe Kaeser said Siemens has remade half its product offerings in just the past decade to stay relevant. IBM (IBM) CEO Ginni Rometty repeated her mantra that the key to survival was to “always disrupt yourself.” Their collective message: We’ve been around this long for a reason; don’t count us out.
At the end of three days of discussion and debate, four clear takeaways emerged. And they’re worth repeating.
We are all technology companies now. Monsanto (MON) CEO Hugh Grant was at the forum the day his company announced a new deal with John Deere, the 178-year-old tractor company, to stream real-time data on soil and crop conditions back to Monsanto headquarters. If John Deere is a tech company, who isn’t? Adam Lashinsky’s profile in this issue of our Businessperson of the Year, Nike CEO Mark Parker, makes the same case.
Competition can come from anywhere. Cisco (CSCO) chairman John Chambers predicted the connected economy will hit business much faster than expected, “with 500 billion connected devices by 2025,” rather than the 25 billion some predict. One result of this digital explosion is that traditional boundaries separating industries will blur. Asked who is his most dangerous competitor, Wells Fargo (WFC) CEO John Stumpf replied, “The people who are influencing us the most are outside our industry—the Apples, the IBMs, the Amazons.”
The greatest challenge isn’t tech, but people. Leaders from Salesforce’s (CRM) Marc Benioff and Yahoo’s (YHOO) Marissa Mayer to Aetna’s Mark Bertolini said creating the right culture is the central challenge for surviving technology-driven change. “Only a baby with a wet diaper likes change,” J.C. Penney (JCP) chairman Mike Ullman told the group. The aim is to cultivate a workplace mind-set that embraces it anyway.
China slowdown or not, developing markets remain key. GE (GE) vice chair John Rice talked about the challenges and opportunities created by an explosion of cities around the globe. “You had Beijing and Shanghai, Delhi and Mumbai. Now it’s Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Pune, Bangalore, and 10 other places that are important to us, in a hundred countries around the world.”
Which brings up another bit of wisdom for forward-looking execs: J.P. Morgan (JPM) CEO Jamie Dimon challenged attendees to focus on opportunities, rather than the potential downside. “Don’t be so damned depressed,” he told the group. “We have all become risk experts and are afraid of our own shadow. Move on. The world is going to be fine.”
A version of this article appears in the December 1, 2015 issue of Fortune with the headline “We are all technology companies now.”