Twenty years ago, the Fortune 500 underwent a major relaunch. The original list, which was first published in 1955, only included industrial companies. In the middle of the 20th century, after all, the most important companies made things. The rest were relegated to the Fortune Service 500.
In 1995, Fortune’s editors decided to combine the two lists. And while industrial giants like General Motors (GM)
still dominated, new entrants–like Walmart (WMT), which was No. 4 that year–showed that the companies selling products or services could be just as important as those that actually manufactured them.
Of course, at any given point in time, the most valuable companies on the Fortune 500 can differ significantly from the companies bringing in the most revenue. A measurement like market capitalization tells us more about what the market believes will be the future of American industry, rather than its present. Studying the most valuable companies on the Fortune 500 since it was reorganized 20 years ago offers a telling portrait of recent American economic history.
The most valuable company on the Fortune 500 20 years ago, General Electric (GE), was a holdover from America’s conglomerate and industrial era. The company’s value was buoyed by the many acquisitions legendary Chairman and CEO Jack Welch made throughout his tenure, like NBC and Honeywell. But soon, Microsoft (MSFT) overtook GE, making clear the overwhelming influence that personal computers had over the U.S. economy. GE briefly reclaimed the top spot following the dot-com crash.
But the oil boom of the last decade, fueled by dwindling supplies and huge growth in emerging markets, pushed Exxon Mobil (XOM) into the top spot. The oil and gas giant stayed at the top of the heap for seven years, until Apple surged ahead to claim the title it still holds today. We still live in a world dominated by smartphones, apps, and other digital entertainment, all areas that Apple (AAPL) has firmly planted flags.
Graphic by Stacy Jones