The Secrets of Corporate Longevity

The foundation of Chris Petrick’s strategy to endure is stunningly simple: “by doing the right thing.” Bretford makes 95 percent of its products in America and is certified as a carbon-neutral company. It offers 12-year guarantees for its products like audiovisual trays and computer work stations—far longer than most of its competitors—and conducts rigorous testing. “A lot of the companies we compete with don’t take the time to make sure their product is completely safe,” Petrick says. “They’ll do everything to make it look like they do; but in the end, they don’t. We do it because it’s the right thing to do. We do the environmental stuff and we manufacture in the U.S. because those are the right things to do. If you’re trying to do the right thing, most of the time, people will honor that and respect it and make a decision to buy our products.”

Not all of today’s CEOs think about the longevity of their companies. Probably a majority—certainly in publicly traded companies—are squarely focused on quarterly earnings and realize that their job tenures will last a few, short years, at best. And families can become complacent and allow their products to grow stale or succumb to feuds that destroy their businesses. Nevertheless, far-sighted CEOs exist in family owned companies, in publicly traded companies where families own minority stakes and in some large publicly traded companies where the family role has diminished or never existed, such as Corning.

Structure Plays a Part
Michael E. Werner, president and CEO of the North American division of Taiwan-based Globe Union Group, a $700 million a year, publicly traded maker of plumbing equipment, argues that the companies with the best shot at longevity manage to combine the best family values with the realities of having at least some shares traded publicly.

“I’m a firm believer that if a senior-management team thinks about the future and about stewardship, almost doing it with a servant type of mentality, the company will prosper for a long time,” says Werner, who is based in Chicago and who previously ran his family’s business before selling it. “The best case is when you can couple that with the high-performance expectations of a public company. We want to combine the best of both worlds. In a public company, you can’t become complacent because you’ve always got people looking over your shoulder challenging you.”