How 3 of the Oldest Companies in America Have Stood the Test of Time

Updated on April 13, 2015
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It’s a wise entrepreneur who learns from his or her elders. Meet three of the oldest companies in America and learn a lesson from their success.

Jim Beam (Beam Suntory)

Industry: Bourbon manufacturing and distribution

Established: 1770

Lesson: Don’t discard the old ways, but bring them into the new era.

Jim Beam has survived and thrived by doing two seemingly contradictory things: hewing to tradition in the making of its signature bourbon, but also betting on new technologies and fearlessly harnessing them to expand the business.

In the 1820s, the Industrial Revolution enabled son David to increase distilling capacity so the company could sell its family recipe to a wider market. David Beam also started shipping the bourbon by train and steamboat, and encouraged bar owners to use the newfangled telegraph to alert the company when they needed more product. In the 1850s, grandson David M. Beam bet on the expansion of the railway, moving the distillery closer to rail lines so product could easily be shipped both north and south.

During World War II, great-grandson Jere Beam began shipping product to servicemen stationed overseas, cementing the brand and its reputation and expanding the market globally.

In 1988, the company spotted the trend toward “premium” everything to introduce handcrafted, small-batch bourbon, and has since expanded its premium line.

Keeping a company in the family for seven generations isn’t easy, but Beam did an admirable job that paid off: Earlier this year, the company sold to Suntory Holdings Limited, a Japanese company, for $16 billion. But that didn’t end the family involvement: Frederick Booker Noe III, great-great-great-great grandson of founder Jacob Beam, is still master distiller at the company, now Beam Suntory.

John Wiley & Sons

Industry: Publishing

Established: 1807

Lesson: Spot emerging trends and position your business to benefit from them.  

When Charles Wiley opened a small printing shop in lower Manhattan in the early 19th century, he had no idea that more than 200 years later, his venture would be a global publishing powerhouse. In addition to publishing literary giants, authors such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Charles Dickens, Herman Melville and Edgar Allan Poe, the company also printed scientific, technical and medical titles, foreshadowing its future focus.

As the Industrial Revolution transformed America, Charles’ son John and grandsons Charles and William took advantage of the new opportunities in science and technology, and by the early 1900s the company was a leading publisher in these fields.

Post-WWII, returning GIs seeking education drove growth in college textbooks, and Wiley expanded its focus on this market. Demand multiplied as the Baby Boom generation hit college age, and in the 1960s, the company went public and expanded worldwide. By the 1980s, textbooks accounted for the largest share of the company’s revenue.

In the 1980s and ‘90s, Wiley expanded by acquiring well-known publishers of college textbooks, professional and executive titles, tax and financial guides, and consumer travel guides and cookbooks. In 2007 it cemented its place in global scientific, medical and technical publishing by acquiring a major U.K. publisher in these fields.

The advent of the Internet didn’t throw this print publisher for a loop. On the contrary, Wiley took full advantage of the Internet to expand its audience globally and to offer customers its full range of products, brands and services online the way they want it—whether print, digitally or as interactive learning platforms.

Wiley has frequently been honored as a top company to work for. With the seventh generation of the Wiley family at the helm, the firm’s $1.8 billion in sales last year prove that providing a positive work environment pays off in more ways than one.

Town Shop

Industry: Women’s lingerie, swimsuits and pajamas

Established: 1888

Lesson: Service is the foundation of any successful business.

The women’s clothing store Sam Koch opened more than 125 years ago has undergone several transformations to become the most famous lingerie store in New York City. Now run by the fourth generation, Sam’s great-grandson Danny Koch, the company recently launched a website in response to customer demand.

But personal service, not online shopping, is key to the Town Shop’s success. Although it also sells swimsuits and pajamas, the store is legendary for its lingerie and, specifically, for its saleswomen’s skill at bra fitting. The saleswomen—many have worked there for decades—can tell a customer’s bra size at a glance and direct her to undergarments that transform both her bustline and her self-confidence.

Although the old-fashioned approach to customer service has served Town Shop well, Koch, who inherited the business from his grandmother Selma Koch in 2003, isn’t afraid to add new twists. Last year, Town Shop moved across the street from its cramped longtime location to a 4,000-square-foot store modeled after the Apple Store. The bright new space has more room for customers who want to browse on their own (something the old store didn’t encourage). However, it still offers personal service at a “bra bar” where “bra-tenders” serve up items for customers to try on. There’s also a sports lounge featuring flat-screen TVs to keep men entertained while their wives or girlfriends shop—plus, new lines of men’s loungewear and underwear in case they want to buy, too.

But underpinning it all is the same dedication to helping women look their best that drove Selma Koch, the store’s former owner and most legendary bra fitter, to regularly work 10-hour days, seven days a week. After marrying the founder’s son Henry Koch in 1928, Selma threw herself into the business with such gusto that grandson Danny told The New York Times he guessed her only regret about dying was that it didn’t happen in the store. That kind of dedication has kept customers—and their daughters and granddaughters—returning to the Town Shop for decades.

Rieva Lesonsky

Rieva Lesonsky is a small business contributor for Fundera and CEO of GrowBiz Media, a media company. She has spent 30+ years covering, consulting and speaking to small businesses owners and entrepreneurs.
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