100-Year Business Plans
Brian Gongol

The British foundry that cast Big Ben and the Liberty Bell has been in business continuously since 1570. To stay in business that long requires either a profound competitive advantage in some perpetually-in-demand product, or a remarkable capacity to adapt to the changing demands of the marketplace. The case of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry appears to be a matter of the former. But there's something to be said for any business that can persist for so long. Meanwhile, thanks to a number of factors (not the least of which has been the overreach of government into the private sector), big companies are being bailed out and the rules of the game -- who's entitled to what, and why -- are entirely unclear.

Big companies like Ford are losing money like never before, in part because upper management has failed to think even three or four years ahead, much less decades or generations into the future. A handful of companies have known centuries-long business plans: Medtronic is known to have one and Toyota has been rumored to have one as well (and the language of some of its documents seems to reflect that). SC Johnson probably has a very-long-term business plan, having stayed profitably in private hands for 120 years and five generations, and Nestle appears to behave as though it does as well, especially considering its avoidance of stock markets with quarterly reporting requirements. BT even goes so far as to employ in-house futurists, and with good reason -- telecommunications is a field particularly susceptible to change.

Forming a very-long-term plan seems to be a very good way to stay in business over the long term. It doesn't just apply to business, though: Long-term estate plans make some sense, too. All of this is not to be taken as an endorsement of force-based government plans (like China's notorious five-year plans). A good plan isn't about what an organization will impose by force (like the murderous Great Leap Forward), but rather an honest internal assessment of the threats and opportunities that are likely (and even not so likely) in the future beyond our immediate vision. There are rumors that China's government and Al Qaeda both have malicious long-term plans. True or not, the thought that they might ought to be enough to encourage free people to think about the long-term future as well. Coca-Cola's president during World War II realized that by putting a Coke in the hands of every servicemember for five cents, anywhere in the world, he would cement appreciation for his product well into the future.

The point of an ultra-long-term plan isn't to create a fixed, perfect roadmap for the next hundred years. Instead, the point is to pull management and ownership out of a fixation on quarterly results and into a view that asks what really ensures the company's purpose and existence as a going concern. When Warren Buffett writes that his favorite holding period for a subsidiary company is "forever," he's expressing the same thing. A problem many companies have is that short-term decisions end up contaminating their long-term success; that, for instance, is why Ford had to mount an advertising campaign touting that its product quality had reached equality with that of Toyota. Bad product decisions -- particularly in the 1990s -- gave Ford a bad reputation, and that in turn forced the company to spend lots of money in the following decades in an effort to overcome consumer perceptions against it. Had management taken a 100-year view at the time the mistakes were originally made, they might have seen that a course correction was in order. Ford certainly would have had a considerable advantage in consumer perceptions in the 1960s and 1970s, so the squandering of that advantage in the interim represents a real failure of long-term leadership.

So how does one go about creating a 100-year plan? It involves a number of factors: Companies known to have 100-year business plans (or other ultra-long-term plans):