The average lifespan of a company listed in the S&P 500 index of leading U.S. companies has decreased by more than 50 years in the last century, from 67 years in the 1920s to just 15 years today, according to Yale University’s Richard Foster in a recent BBC article.
Given this trend, it takes a special type of organisation to stay in business 100 years, and there is much to be learned from those celebrating a centennial this year, including Zurich Insurance, Steelcase, and the Girl Scouts of the USA (GSUSA).
Among the traits that these successful organisations have in common are a laser-sharp customer focus, a willingness to chart new territory, and a close relationship with the communities in which they operate.
Laser-Sharp Customer Focus
Founded in Switzerland, Zurich Insurance Group (Zurich) is a multi-line insurance provider with a global network that ventured into the U.S. market in 1912. Today, its CEO for the North America Commercial Business, Mike Foley, believes the dynamic growth is due to Zurich’s ability to zealously service its customer base.
“We started in Switzerland, but our customers doing business in the U.S. needed quality insurance products there to protect themselves from risk,” says Mr. Foley. “So we followed the customers, becoming a global organisation that could provide the core competencies and specific industry expertise that they required.”
Jim Hackett is the CEO of Steelcase, a global, $2.75 billion manufacturer of workplace products, furnishings, and services that was also founded in 1912. He echoes the sentiment that longevity rewards companies that solve customer problems. “We’ve lasted such a long time because we’re commited to developing products that are well-suited to how humans work, engage, and collaborate,” says Mr. Hackett.
Customer focus applies just as much to nonprofits as it does to Fortune 500 entities. Anna Maria Chávez, the CEO of GSUSA, which at 100 years old is the largest girls leadership development organisation in the world, says that because every generation is different, continual research must be done to ensure that the organisation serves the changing needs of its customer and moves at the speed of girl.
“Today’s girls are on Facebook and have smart phones, so naturally we’ve had to adjust,” says Ms. Chávez. “We created the Girl Scout Research Institute as a focal point of our understanding of the lives American girls lead.”Willingness to Chart New Territory
Since customer needs are always evolving, all three organisations celebrating centennials this year have taken significant gambles in order to expand their offerings. Steelcase, for instance, began as a furniture company but has recognised that the way people work has changed.
“Today’s customers need more than great chairs. They are more mobile, global and interconnected than ever before, so we’ve created products that sync with technology and facilitate collaboration, ” says Mr. Hackett. “Our positioning is now more broadly associated with the performance workspace of the future. “
Chávez’s GSUSA also prides itself on innovating with the times.
In order to adapt to the changing lifestyles of girls, the organisation has decreased its emphasis on the school-based troop and now offers an integrated curriculum that allows girls to join when – and where – they want. Girl Scouts has also created a more flexible volunteer model to accommodate the 900,000 adults who want to serve but have available fewer hours.
Similarly, Zurich has sought continuous improvement through a series of overseas mergers and acquisitions. After decades of building distinctive leadership positions in industries such as construction, the company recently sought to unite its disparate business units under a common platform and purpose, The Zurich Way. “We took risks, and sometimes our growth was too fast, ” says Mr. Foley. “But in the end, we were able to create best practices for being an effective global insurer. “
Ongoing Community Relationships
Long-lasting organisations also make their mark by giving back to the communities in which they’ve thrived. The GSUSA estimates that its members complete more than 75 million hours of community service annually.
“In honour of our centennial this year, we have rolled out a new cause campaign, ToGetHerThere, designed to bring about balanced leadership across all sectors in one generation. We also have in place the $1 billion Campaign for Girls to deliver more programs to more girls. These campaigns support the future generation of women leaders,” says Ms. Chavez. “We are dedicated to philanthropy by girls, for girls.”
As for Zurich, Mr. Foley is proud that the company’s history is so tightly interwoven with that of the nation. In 1931 for example, Zurich employees contributed more than $1,800 to Great Depression relief efforts, and in 1944, a former CEO raised $500K to rebuild Goodwill Chicago after it was damaged by fire. This year, Zurich employees are participating in the 100 Ways Project, which includes more than 100 different company-sponsored community service initiatives in the U.S. and Canada.
Steelcase too emphasises social responsibility through its Foundation, established in 1951 to give back in the areas of human service, health, education, community development, the arts and the environment.
Steelcase claims that the Foundation is a catalyst for partnerships and problem-solving across sectors – non-profit, for-profit and government.
These organisations have achieved so much because they have adapted their strategies to a changing world, and because they are always looking for ways to improve people’s lives. It is these traits that position them well no matter what the future holds.
What other traits do you think 100-year-old companies have in common? What does your organisation need to do to stay in business in the long-term?