The Secrets of Corporate Longevity

The percentage of shares held by outsiders kept increasing over the decades, even as the Houghton family remained active in management. The company survived the vicissitudes of many business cycles, such as the boom-and-bust of fiberoptic cable, which was its major product when the market crashed in 2001. James Houghton, a family member who had stepped back from the business and was serving on the board, returned to the CEO role after the telecommunications meltdown to guide the company back onto a winning path. But he has now been retired for 10 years and no family member is involved in the business.

“We’re part of a values-based culture where how we do things is just as important as what we accomplish. We define Corning by something other than our stock price or what the media says about us.”

Moreover, with 1.5 billion shares outstanding, the Houghtons are no longer considered major investors, according to standards set by the SEC. Yet, Wendell P. Weeks, chairman, CEO and president of the company today, argues that it is his job and the job of everyone at Corning to manage the company in a way that it can survive another 160 years.

“Our goal is not peak performance during our brief time at the helm of this great company but rather sustainable performance,” Weeks told shareholders in May. That often means the company leans against the wishes of Wall Street, for example, by insisting on a hefty research and development budget when many financial analysts would like to see those dollars flow to the bottom line. “We’re part of a values-based culture where how we do things is just as important as what we accomplish,” Weeks said. “We’re here because we define Corning by something other than our stock price or what the media says about us.”

It’s more than hollow rhetoric. Corning has consistently managed itself for the long-term, in part because it knows that the town of Corning in upstate New York and nearby towns, as well, depend on the company for economic survival.

Weeks’ formula for Corning’s longevity—being a values-based culture that seeks sustainable performance—is similar to what many family-owned companies seek to achieve. It proves that publicly traded companies can, in fact, play for the long term.

The bottom line: Ensuring that a company endures is not a sudden decision. It takes meticulous long-term planning. And CEOs, whether family members or not, must manage the day-to-day business as a sustainable legacy.

Read more: Longevity and the Family Business: Tricky Transitions