But sheer size and bulk saves no one. GEC was the third-largest company in the FTSE-100 20 years ago. It’s new name, Marconi, is now a by-word for corporate cock-up. BTR was ranked 8th, but as Invensys it, too, has slipped out of the top 100. And ICI, whose share price was invariably referred to as the ‘bellwether’ of the London stock markets, is on the bottom rungs of the main index.
There have been loads of mergers and a couple of failures (British & Commonwealth and Ferranti). We’ve lost some curious names from the industrial landscape (British Electric Traction and Standard Telephones & Cables) and gained some interesting new arrivals. British Telecom hadn’t even been privatised when the index launched; today, it’s worth a fraction of bitter rival Vodafone, ranked no 2.
There have been changing fashions, as well. BAT Industries used to sell fags and life assurance. Hanson bloated itself on acquisitions then did a Damascene conversion with a series of demergers.
The index as a whole is now worth £1.1 trillion – about 11 times what it was worth 20 years ago. And BP alone is worth today what all 100 shares were worth back then. But at 4,500 today, the index itself is only four-and-a-half times its launch value. The FTSE-100 has ballooned on the back of acquisitions and new equity issues.
Can we learn any lessons by studying these lists? Perhaps only two: the first is that the unimaginable can happen, and does. The second is that, despite the changing fashions in business management, the best-performing companies are those that have stuck to what they do and carried on doing it very well.
Or maybe it’s just pure luck: as one of my colleagues so aptly put it, fortune favours the successful.