Forbes is celebrating 100 years of its business-empowering magazine. To commemorate the milestone in Asia, we take a look back at regional market and economies over the past century.
The past century has been a revolution for Asia. In fact, it’s been a series of revolutions, revivals, rebirths and rises. The continent now stands on more of an equal footing with the West than ever before. In 1917, China was divided and had suffered a series of political upheavals, India was impoverished and ruled from London and Singapore was a far-flung trading hub, also controlled by the Crown.
In 2017, India and China are now two of the world’s largest economies, and Singapore is the world’s best place in which to do business. The Asian Tiger economies of Hong Kong, Taiwan, and South Korea continue to roar and inspire others to do so, and Asia today has the strongest economic outlook of any region in the world, according to a 2017 IMF report. Among many others, these five companies have helped to build Asia into the economic powerhouse it is today.
A diverse company from its beginning, Sasmung was founded in 1938 as a trading company. In the 1950s, in the wake of the Korean War, the company diversified into textiles, banking, paper products and publishing. In 1969, founder Lee Byung-chull enlisted the help of Sanyo to establish Samsung Electronics, the division of the company best known to consumers across the world today, which at first produced TV sets.
In 1980, Samsung acquired electronics company Hanguk Jeonja Tongsin, beginning a fruitful relationship with telecommunications hardware, building switchboards, fax machines and telephones. However, the true turning point for the company came in 1993, when Lee Kun Hee, after inheriting the company from his father, made what became known as the “Frankfurt Declaration.”
Speaking to hundreds of company executives in a hotel in the German city, he famously urged his employees to “change everything but your wife and children.” This meeting was so influential that it would eventually be transcribed into a book that was given to employees, and the room in which Lee gave the speech was recreated in Samsung’s HQ in Korea, replete with the original furnishings purchased from the hotel.
Thanks to the changes that were made in the wake of the Frankfurt meeting, Samsung went from being a mediocre electronics manufacturer to surpassing Nokia as the world’s largest phone manufacturer by units sold in 2012. Today, it is world’s second-largest technology company.
When Kiichiro Toyoda inherited Toyoda Automatic Loom Works from his father in 1933, he had an ambitious plan. He would establish a division of the company dedicated to manufacturing cars, a risky industry at the time, and would make his cars as simple and affordable as possible.
World War 2, although devastating to Japan, helped the fledgling company to perfect its manufacturing techniques. In the financial turmoil that followed the war, the U.S. Army was one of Toyota’s largest clients, purchasing vehicles that would be used in the reconstruction effort.
In the early 1950s, Toyoda visited and toured a Ford factory in Michigan, which revolutionized the way the company produced its vehicles. In the same period, the company began expanding globally, opening factories in America and Brazil. Today, Toyota holds a 15% market share in the U.S. auto industry, and is the most valuable automotive brand in the world.
Despite its success, the company hasn’t forgotten its roots. It still operates a textiles division, and continues to manufacture looms and sewing machines to this day.
Founded in Japan in the immediate aftermath of World War 2, co-founder Masaru Ibuka built his electronics company around the principles of innovation and quality. Sony was the first to build a tape recorder in Japan, and experienced rapid growth thanks to its cheap, reliable transistor radio, which Sony exported to U.S. customers throughout the 1950s. Over the following decade, this gadget cemented Sony as a household name in the U.S., and Sony’s example encouraged other Japanese companies to focus on exporting products overseas.
Hit by the global recession of the early 1980s, Sony saw its sales plummet and some felt that the company was doomed. In an attempt to steer the company through the recession, music aficionado Norio Ogha was appointed president, and his meticulous attention to detail and passion for design were key factors in Sony’s recovery over the next decade.
He spearheaded the development of the compact disc format in conjunction with Philips, which became the forerunner of DVDs, and today’s BluRay technology. He also oversaw the development and launch of the Sony PlayStation in 1994.
“By redefining Sony as a company encompassing both hardware and software, Ohga-san succeeded where other Japanese companies failed,” said Sony chairman Howard Stringer in 2011. “It is no exaggeration to attribute Sony’s evolution beyond audio and video products into music, movies and game, and subsequent transformation into a global entertainment leader to Ohga-san’s foresight and vision.”
Unlike most of the companies on this list, HDFC, India’s largest private sector bank, is largely the vision of one man. Aditya Puri is the Managing Director of HDFC, assuming the position in September 1994, making him the longest-serving head of any private bank in the country and the only head that HDFC has ever had.
Founded at a time when private sector banks were just opening up in India, HDFC has grown steadily and consistently under his leadership. “Banking is not very complicated, and you need to keep it that way,” Puri told Forbes in 2015.
The company established itself by catering to the wealthier segments of Indian society, but has since grown substantially throughout India and today has more than 4,700 branches across three countries. This growth has mirrored India’s increasing GDP, and the bank is currently focused on expanding into semi-urban and rural areas while keeping one eye on improving its technology offerings as it grows. Passionate about incorporating the latest tech into his bank’s product offering, Puri has consistently kept ahead of the curve on online banking, digital money transfers and mobile payments.
“Our best years are still to come,” he says. “I am as excited today about digital banking and selling to rural areas as I was about building the bank in the initial days.”
Given HDFC’s recent trajectory (briefly surpassing TCS to become India’s second most valuable company earlier this month and regularly voted the country’s most valuable brand) it seems clear that those “best years” are certainly on the horizon. Given India’s rising economic heft and Puri’s strong track record, HDFC’s shareholders have plenty of reasons to be optimistic.
The upstart of the bunch, Jack Ma’s behemoth is younger, smaller and more valuable than every other company on this list.
Now the richest man in Asia, Ma began tinkering with the internet after struggling to find a job. He quickly learned that there was little or nothing on the web that catered to Chinese audiences, and saw an opportunity. He made almost $1 million with his first company, a startup that built websites for other Chinese companies. When he founded Alibaba, it was one of the first sites of its kind that catered to Chinese consumers.
“We must remain dedicated to our work, we must continue to help small businesses succeed, and we must allow time and the results of our work to speak for themselves,” he saidahead of the company’s IPO in 2014. It would become the most valuable IPO in history, raising $25 billion for the company.
Although Alibaba was founded in 1999, it has moved faster than some would have believed possible, eclipsing all others listed above in terms of valuation in just 18 years. The rise of consumerism in China would arguably not have happened so rapidly had sites like Alibaba not sprung up to support it. E-commerce is so popular today in China that 79% of consumers shop online at least once a month, with 61% of them beginning their search with Alibaba’s Tmall.