America’s 20 Most Important Companies

Tom Peters

“List fever” for the year is finally over. Once there was only the Fortune 500. Now there’s the Business Week 1000, Forbes’ four lists of 500 and Forbes’ latest, “The 800 Most Powerful People in Corporate America.” But before closing the books, I want to offer my own idiosyncratic list of “America’s 20 Most Important Companies,” in alphabetical order.

1. Apple Computer. Along with Adam Osborne’s now defunct operation, Apple launched the personal-computer age. Then, written off in 1983, Apple charged back with the Mac, bashing down corporate doors and setting off alarms at IBM.

2. Chaparral Steel. Chief executive Gordon Forward may just run the most efficient steel operation in the world. He’s one of our “mini-mill” operators who is taking large chunks of business back from bigger domestic, as well as overseas, producers.

3. Citicorp. Big and bold seldom go hand in glove. At Citicorp, they do. The firm is a nimble exploiter of new technology and is reshaping global financing.

4. Compaq Computer. Conceived at the height of IBM’s armlock on the PC market, Compaq raced to $1 billion in sales faster than any firm in history. Competitiveness buffs take note: Efficient domestic manufacturing is the firm’s long suit.

5. Cray Research. The supercomputer epitomizes high-tech mastery, and though Cray now has several new challengers, the firm is super-computing.

6. Cypress semiconductor. The last thing the semiconductor industry needs is more start-ups, say some experts; it should be trying to consolidate to battle the Japanese giants. But in the last 10 years, about 125 newcomers have sprouted, none better than Cypress. The Japanese look with envy at Cypress, et al.

7. Digital Equipment Corp. Giant DEC is now competing in every part of the computer market. But just a quarter of a century ago, founder Ken Olsen was a lonely advocate of decentralized computing.

8. Drexel Burnham Lambert. Financing is the key to America’s current corporate transformation. Investment bankers and their Fortune 500 friends were a clubby lot after World War II. No longer. Drexel’s gloves-off financing revealed, when it came to the Fortune 500, that the emperor often had no clothes.

9. Federal Express. This renegade dared to take on the post office, and has ended up creating about 50,000 new jobs in the last decade. It’s a service firm that belies that sector’s image, sporting high wages and even higher technology.

10. Ford. With style, quality, and a “people first” attitude, Ford has humiliated General Motors, proving that even very big firms can change their ways, and quickly at that.

11. Genentech. Marvelous Merck may be Fortune’s pick as the most admired firm in America, but Genentech is my pharmaceutical choice. The biotechnology pioneer blends great science and great commercial instincts.

12. Hewlett-Packard. HP is the standard bearer for enlightened management. But its latest coup resulted from a bet-the-company gamble on Reduced Instruction Set Computing (RISC), a technology from which IBM had backed off, but then rushed back to after HP’s success.

13. Intel. It now sings protectionist songs and thinks semiconductor start-ups are for the birds (though not long ago Intel was just such a chip off an older block). But the company, says economics commentator George Gilder, is the most important in post-war America—and he’s got a point.

14. The Limited. This relative newcomer is fast as lightning—and awesomely successful. The Limited has skillfully mixed high technology, customer listening, and a lean organizational form. The garment-making retail giant is another powerful example of the sophistication of our service sector.

15. Microsoft. In this age of software, on which every product and service will increasingly depend, Microsoft stands out among the ranks of brash software superstars.

16. Milliken & Co. Textiles are making a comeback in America. Milliken’s leading effort exploits the technology of design and production, which is blended successfully with superior quality and an absence of bureaucracy.

17. Texas Air. There’s little I like about Texas Air. But only in the U.S. is the price of air travel within the reach of most people. Texas Air Chief Frank Lorenzo and People Express Founder Don Burr (People is now a part of Texas Air) are largely responsible for that.

18. Turner Broadcasting. Captain Outrageous (aka Ted Turner) has shaken the networks with his mastery of cable and economical broadcasting. TV will never be the same, thank heavens.

19. Walmart. This frisky, high-tech retailer skimps on bureaucracy, not service. For Chairman Sam Walton, it adds up to paper wealth of about $9 billion.

20. 3000 Sand Hill Road. It’s not a company, but it’s arguably the most important business address in America today. This Menlo Park, Calif., hub of venture capital activity is of vital importance to our future, as both symbol and substance of our renewal effort.

A list like this one could not be drawn up in any other country. It portrays a vitality that is uniquely American and captures our greatest comparative strength at a time of structural economic change. Such a list, which exemplifies youth and exuberance, doesn’t square with the theories of American decline. Let’s hope that our next president makes policies that spawn more and more upstart organizations like these, rather than bring down upon us the stagnation that lurks over Europe today, and maybe even Japan.

(c) 1988 TPG Communications.

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