Heavy Hitters: Quick Facts and History of America’s Five Biggest Companies

fiveHave you ever thought about the five biggest companies in the United States?

The Forbes addict in your office might be able to reel them off like she was reciting her five favorite foods, but for most of us the task is much harder. Sure, most of us can guess Apple and Google, but even those might be a surprise to some.

We wanted to know what those five companies were, so we went out and did a little investigation. “Biggest” can be a slippery word – Biggest workforce? Most revenue? – so we decided to narrow it down to market cap.

In doing so, we discovered a very helpful list written by CNN Money in 2015. We’re going to take that list and expand on it, noting some interesting moments and personalities and other trivia about each company.

#1 Apple

Tech companies have taken over the mega-corporation landscape and Apple has led the way. The tech company’s top standing isn’t much of a surprise, although some may be a little stunned by the fact the storied titan finished ahead of Google.

In 2009, Apple’s market cap was 33rd on the list. Six years makes a huge difference, doesn’t it? And yet that rise isn’t so surprising, given the spike in iPhone and iPad sales during that time.

What we think is interesting about Apple is that the story of its origins is one of the most familiar tales in tech history, thanks to eccentric-yet-brilliant founder Steve Jobs. The genius is the subject of several movies that have graced the big screen over the past few years.

Quick and quirky facts about Apple:

  • The name iPhone was chosen from a weird lot of names that included Telepod, Tripod and Mobi.
  • The company has been known to create fake projects to see if the staff working on them will leak details to the press.

#2 Google

If there’s one thing Google has over Apple, it’s that “Apple” hasn’t become a verb.

These days, you can barely go an hour without Googling something. Also, whereas Apple’s products still face tough competition from other mobile phone and computer companies, Google absolutely dominates the search engine world. Bing and Yahoo are almost an afterthought.

And don’t forget that Google is the king of mapping, their driverless cars have ridden 2 million miles and they created their own mobile operating system, Android.

The company first launched its search engine in 1998, but the domain name was registered on September 15, 1997.

Quick and quirky facts about Google:

  • Founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin met at Stanford University. Larry was visiting the school and Sergey was assigned to show him around campus.
  • Google’s first doodle incorporated the Burning Man. The team went to the desert festival that year and posted the doodle on August 30, 1998.



#3 Microsoft

With all the tech companies popping up all over the world (and popping up on Forbes lists), we sometimes forget that there’s one tech company that’s been a top-10 contender for decades: Microsoft.

We think part of this forgetfulness has to do with the rather mundane perception Microsoft gives in light of Apple’s iOS genius and design-focused products. Also, there’s that whole thing about the clunky, buggy Windows operating systems.

We think it’s a matter of founders, too. Bill Gates comes off as generous but boring and nerdy, while Steve Jobs is seen as an inspirational superhero.

The pop perceptions of the two men couldn’t be more exaggerated, as both Gates and Jobs are superheroes based on their intelligence, creativity and drive.

Quick and quirky facts about Microsoft:

  • Microsoft registered as a company in 1976 in New Mexico, where founders Bill Gates and Paul Allen were working with their first big client.
  • Employees are known as “Softies” and they celebrate their anniversaries by bringing in a pound of M&M’s for every year they’ve worked for the company.

#4 Berkshire Hathaway

It’s time for a tech break, isn’t it?

The Oracle of Omaha’s holdings company has 60 subsidiary companies and has substantial investments in big-time American companies like Kraft Foods, Coca-Cola and Goldman Sachs.

Warren Buffet’s reputation among businesspeople and investors is absolutely legendary, and his theory that you should buy when everyone is selling and sell when everyone is buying has been a bedrock philosophy for many an investor.

Quick and quirky facts about Berkshire Hathaway:

  • BH was originally a textile company that went into a steady decline and was eventually bought by Buffet after buying enough shares to gain enough power to fire the owner.
  • The company may not be the biggest in the country, but it’s stock is the most expensive. Class A shares of BH were selling for $225,000 in 2015.

#5: ExxonMobil

If you’re a Baby Boomer or Generation Xer, then Exxon is synonymous with the Valdez, an oil tanker that ran aground in Alaska’s Prince William Sound and spilled 10-11 million gallons of oil into the sound’s pristine waters.

These days, the company shares its name with Mobil and is, to today’s generation, nothing more than a gas station. However, ExxonMobil is the largest publicly traded oil and gas company in the world.

Quick and quirky facts about ExxonMobil:

  • Exxon came into being after the Supreme Court broke up John Rockefeller’s Standard Oil into 34 different companies.
  • The 1999 ExxonMobil merger was worth nearly $80 billion.

The History of Management: From Individual to Machine to Empathy

Unless you’ve been travelling through Southeast Asia for the past five years without a smartphone, then you’ve probably noticed that management styles have undergone some significant changes.

For years, the top-down model ruled just about every kind of organization in the country. There was a boss, some mid-level management and a bunch of employees. The boss gave the directive, the managers passed it on to the employees and everything was great.


As Millennials flooded the workforce, those age-old notions of proper management started to crumble. The model’s viability was questioned and new ideas of community-style learning and leading emerged. The Strategic Leadership Institute (SLI) calls this the “Servant Leader” model.

Along with that shift in workplace mentality came a shift in workplace organization… offices were transformed into open areas where collaboration was the key.

This significant change got us thinking about the history of management and how it’s changed not just over the past decade, but over the past few centuries.

The First Big Shift Came at the End of the 19th Century

Entrepreneurs are basically the rock stars of today’s business world. However, this trend is nothing new.  Back in the 19th century, business owners were bootstrapping their way to success just like they are today.

Entrepreneurial Capitalism

This movement was called “entrepreneurial capitalism,” SLI pointed out in a 2009 article on the history of management. Individuals used their own money to start their businesses.

The Harvard Business Review has a nice explanation of this managerial movement:

“Prior to the industrial revolution, of course, there wasn’t much ‘management’ at all – meaning, anyone other than the owner of an enterprise handling tasks such as coordination, planning, controlling, rewarding, and resource allocation.”

Managerial Capitalism

However, when the 20th century rolled around, those self-funded companies started to grow. The Industrial Revolution brought with it massive companies who couldn’t operate under the principles of entrepreneurial capitalism. So, they adopted a new style of management called “managerial capitalism” to corral and transform their large workforces.

As American shifted to this new style of management, various experts began to study the manufacturing process. Through their work, managers were able to understand how long it took to manufacture a certain product and what type of efficiency they could expect out of a single employee.

Expertise Becomes the Calling Card of 20th Century Management

The 20th century brought not only the boom of managerial capitalism, but also a scientific approach to management that mirrored the prevailing modernist mindset of the first half of the 1900’s.

An article by Rita McGrath in the Harvard Business Review calls this the era of “expertise,” in which “writers such as Elton Mayo, Mary Parker Follett, Chester Barnard, Max Weber, and Chris Argyris imported theories from other fields (sociology and psychology) to apply to management. Statistical and mathematical insights were imported (often from military uses) forming the basis of the field that would subsequently be known as operations management.”


Organizations basically became well-oiled machines operating on scientific theories of efficiency and structure. A worker’s value was based on how well he or should could perform his or her role within the overall machine.

But that concept of leadership and management started to change when author Peter Drucker started to question a mechanical approach to leadership. Workers were more than just robots playing a small part in a huge machine – they were a wealth of knowledge that helped the company survive.

A Shift from Robotic to Relational: Employees as Knowledge-Holders

“When all the value in an organization walks out the door each evening, a different managerial contract than the command-and-control mindset prevalent in execution type work is required,” Harvard Business Review pointed out. “Thus, new theories of management arose that put far more emphasis on motivation and engagement of workers.”


So, instead of bosses ordering a legion of mindless robots to do menial tasks, managers started to realize that employees were assets for their knowledge just as much as their ability to perform a task.

Elton Mayo, one of the authors mentioned earlier, was one of the influencers of a new movement of management. This new movement put an emphasis on social interactions in the workplace and an appeal to the emotions of employees as the primary determining factor in efficiency, SLI noted in its article

You could say that Mayo, along with other proponents of a more human managerial system, created the platform by which today’s employee-focused managerial style found its growth. McGrath calls this the “era of empathy,” while SLI dubbed it the era of “servant leadership.”

We think McGrath’s words are pretty fitting to conclude this brief history of management:

“We are also grappling with widespread dissatisfaction with the institutions that have been built to date, many of which were designed for the business-as-machine era. They are seen as promoting inequality, pursuing profit at the expense of employees and customers, and being run for the benefit of owners of capital, rather than for a broader set of stakeholders. At this level, too, the challenge to management is to act with greater empathy.”