In the summer of 2016, Intuit CEO Brad Smith was on a cross-country flight reading an issue of Fortune when he found himself transfixed by a particular story. Its lead sentence: “Why isn’t Intuit dead?”
Rather than be offended, Smith read the article, written by veteran Fortune scribe Geoff Colvin, and found that it was actually about the rare, valuable ability of Intuit and a few other firms to repeatedly reinvent themselves.
As he mulled the piece, Smith realized: Intuit (INTU) needed to reinvent itself once more. It wasn’t just Geoff’s cogent writing that convinced him; he’d long been contemplating the transformative changes that were sweeping through society and the business world. But only weeks later, in September of last year, Smith shared his new corporate vision with employees: Intuit, he said, would actively engage with small businesses, taxpayers, accountants, and app developers to form mutually beneficial relationships—which, in turn, would make the Mountain View, Calif., company more valuable to its customers. Intuit, said the boss, would plant itself at the center of its own “ecosystem.”
That ability to reimagine itself, and to re-create itself with an all-in focus, helps explain how a 34-year-old accounting and tax-software company could outcompete everyone else in its arena—driving profits to a record height this year, growing revenue by more than a third since 2012, and returning a stunning 60% on its capital investments. Shareholders, no surprise, have benefited too: Intuit’s stock has returned 152% over the past five years, compared with 95% for the S&P 500.
But where does that talent for continuous adaptation and evolution come from? Why do some firms seem to manage change fluidly while others get swallowed up by it? We’ve devoted much of the Nov. 1 issue of Fortune to answering those questions—starting with one of the most ambitious lists we’ve ever published: The Future 50. We’ve spent months working with consulting firm BCG, which has performed an extraordinary analysis of corporate DNA, assessing the intrinsic “vitality” of 2,300 public companies. (See here for an in-depth explanation of the rationale and methodology.) Through that process, we’ve found 25 large companies and 25 up-and-coming challengers that are poised for breakout growth.
A lot of the names (Tesla, Facebook, Amazon, Netflix) are familiar ones, but even here our analysis points to qualities of vibrancy and adaptability that you may not be aware of—from the patents these companies hold to the upstart businesses and technologies they themselves invest in to the way their top managers communicate. (Yes, part of BCG’s brave new analysis involves natural language processing.)
Atop the list is a name some won’t expect: Salesforce, the enterprise software company and pioneering wayfarer of the cloud. But once you’ve read Adam Lashinsky’s probing profile, you’ll understand why.
As for Intuit, it’s also high on our list. And Geoff Colvin returns with the definitive answer to what makes this company thrive in seemingly any economic environment over the past three-plus decades. The story headline sets it up nicely: “How Intuit Reinvents Itself.” We’re guessing that CEO Brad Smith may trip again over the lead sentence.
A version of this article appears in the Nov. 1, 2017 issue of Fortune with the headline “Vital Signs.”