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15 Famous Companies That Started As Something Much Different

All businesses begin with a specific idea in mind, and although some stick to exactly what they started with, it’s much more common to find that a business has grown and evolved over time to keep up with changes in supply, demand, and even resource availability. Simply put, smart businesses tend to follow the money, and sometimes that means growing into a business the founders hadn’t ever imagined.

These 15 famous companies did just that, all changing in dramatic ways to become totally different than their former selves.

  1. Berkshire Hathaway.

    Multinational conglomerate holding company Berkshire Hathaway is best known for its control investor, Warren Buffett, who has grown the company by investing not just in stocks, but in entire companies. But it was established back in 1839 as the Valley Falls Company, a textile manufacturer. The company remained in textiles until 1967, when Buffett expanded investments into the insurance industry, a reach that now includes utilities, railroads, and newspapers. The last of the textile operations were shut down in 1985.

  2. 3M.

    Founded in 1902, 3M was once known as the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company. It started out to mine a mineral deposit near Lake Superior for grinding-wheel abrasives, but when that turned out to be a bust, the company began to focus on sandpaper. 3M struggled, and was not able to pay dividends until 1916, but years of trouble laid the foundation for smart production, supply, and innovation. From that point, 3M began to transform more into the one we know today, developing the world’s first waterproof sandpaper, inventing masking tape, and Scotchgard.

  3. Fujifilm.

    Fujifilm was founded in 1934 as a photographic film manufacturer, but they have grown to introduce a variety of related and totally unrelated products, both through their own creation and by acquiring other companies. Through the years, and especially since the introduction of digital photography, Fujifilm has innovated and created in a variety of product categories, including X-ray film, videotapes, medical systems and equipment, skin care, printing, and recording media.

  4. Nokia.

    Major cell phone maker Nokia’s history goes all the way back to the pre-telecommunications era, when in 1865 they started as a groundwood pulp mill. The company quickly expanded to build a second mill, carefully choosing one that had good resources for hydropower production. This hydropower sparked a company interest in the business of electricity generation, which was added as a business activity in 1902. But by the end of the 1910s, Nokia was struggling, and was acquired by Finnish Rubber Works in order to ensure that they could continue to get their electricity supply from Nokia. In 1922, Finnish Rubber Works also acquired Finnish Cable Works, and the three companies were eventually formed into Nokia Corporation as an industrial conglomerate in 1967. At the time, Nokia was in a variety of different industries, including cables, consumer electronics, robotics, military equipment, and footwear. But in the 1990s, Nokia pared down to simply focus on telecommunications, including networking equipment, personal computers, IT equipment, and the product they are most famous for today, mobile phones.

  5. Procter & Gamble.

    At its beginning in the 19th century, Procter and Gamble simply sold candles and soap. But as electricity caught on in households, they began to sell fewer candles, yet still owned eight cottonseed oil mills, ending up with a whole lot of oil that had nowhere to go. They found a new market for this oil as Crisco, hydrogenated cottonseed oil designed to replace lard. By the 1930s, P&G had grown to become an international corporation with a wide variety of new products and brand names, many acquired by purchasing other businesses. The company has still remained somewhat true to their roots, continuing to create consumer goods including diapers, toothpaste, detergent, and personal hygiene items.

  1. The Gap.

    In 1969, The Gap was founded in San Francisco as a record store that also happened to sell jeans. But the store had trouble moving the jeans and almost brought the company to bankruptcy. The Gap was able to survive, however, as they used creative marketing to expand and build a new location the very next year, shifting their focus to jeans and apparel as we know them today. We haven’t seen any records for sale in their stores, but in 2005, The Gap paired up with Apple to give iTunes music downloads to customers who tried on a pair of Gap jeans.

  2. Delta Airlines.

    Delta Airlines flies passengers and cargo all around the world, but they sure didn’t start out that way. Rather, Delta began with 15 crop dusting and sprayer aircraft. The type of flying needed to perform crop dusting work was unusual, reported by the company as a “ride of flying low and then a hellacious pull up and coming back to the field.” It was this special skill set that Delta used to promote itself when it added passenger service in 1929, pointing out their “Pilots of Unusual Skills” as they flew five passengers at a time.

  3. Western Union.

    Since 1851, Western Union has been in the business of connecting people. But in those days, as the Mississippi Valley Printing Telegraph Company, the only thing they were sending was telegrams. It wasn’t until 1871 that the company introduced money transfers, which they are known for today. In 1980, the company reached at point at which their revenue from money transfers exceeded that of their telegram service, and now no longer performs telegrams, focusing solely on financial services.

  4. Mazda.

    In 1920, Mazda was the Toyo Cork Kogyo Company, a manufacturer of cork products. In 1927, the company took its first steps toward automobile manufacturing, expanding its product line to include machinery products, and then two years later, began the production of machine tools. In 1931, Toyo Kogyo introduced a three-wheeled truck, and after a shift to military production during WWII, resumed production of its truck in 1945, introducing its first passenger car in 1960.

  5. BF Goodrich.

    BF Goodrich has long been known as a tire manufacturer, but today, does nothing of the sort. Through a series of investments and buyouts, the company that started in 1870 first selling radios, and then rubber and tires, became a government aerospace contractor in the 1990s. In 1999, Goodrich became the No. 1 supplier of landing gear and other aircraft parts. The company was purchased by United Technologies Corporation for $18.4 billion in September 2011.

  1. Mattel.

    Today, Mattel is the world’s largest toy company, creating Fisher Price, Barbies, Hot Wheels, board games, and even American Girl dolls. The company came from humble beginnings, as founder Elliot Handler and his wife Ruth headquartered the small business in their suburban garage. They began with equipment purchased on installment from Sears, first creating picture frames, then expanding into children’s products, creating dollhouse furniture from picture frame scraps. Their company grew quickly, turning a profit in their first year and shifting their emphasis to toys.

  2. Yamaha.

    Yamaha began as a piano and reed organ manufacturer in 1887, but was forever changed by WWII, taking on wartime production. After the war was over, Yamaha used its wartime production machinery to begin making motorcycles and has grown from there. The company continues to make musical instruments, and is actually the world’s largest manufacturer of musical instruments, but their product line has expanded greatly since the 19th century, including not just motorcycles, but sporting goods, appliances, industrial robots, and even semiconductors.

  3. Lamborghini.

    Drive around the Italian countryside, and you just might catch sight of old 1950s Lamborghinis rusting away. No, not luxury cars left to rot in the sun, but old tractors, the company’s original product line. Founder Ferruccio Lanborghini went into business after serving as a mechanic in WWII, building tractors from leftover military hardware, and went on to become one of Italy’s largest agricultural equipment manufacturers. With this wealth, Lamborghini was able to purchase several luxury cars, and upon discovering that his Ferrari shared the same clutch as one of his tractors, was inspired to manufacture an automobile himself.

  4. Wrigley Company.

    For Wrigley, sometimes the freebies are more popular than the product itself. They began selling soap, including baking powder as a promotion until the powder became so popular that it became their main focus. Then, it happened again, as the chewing gum they included became more popular than their baking powder. The company’s main focus remains in food processing, particularly gum and other candies, but also includes pet food, snacks, and other food products.

  5. Ball Corporation.

    Founded in 1880, Ball Corporation began as a manufacturer of glass containers, most famous for their glass canning jars. In the 1950s, Ball branched out to begin creating goods and services for the aerospace sector, eventually exiting the glass business for good in 1996. Ball Corporation does still create food packaging, including metal beverage and food containers, and is now the largest producer of recyclable beverage cans in the world. But they are also very large in the aerospace industry, particularly space manufacturing and national defense through wholly owned subsidiary Ball Aerospace & Technologies. Ball Aerospace is the 99th largest defense contractor in the world.


This article was first posted in Online MBA.

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