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Nine Companies with the Most Unusual Origins

Thomas C. Frohlich and Vince Calio
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - MAY 13, 2013: Young students on a school field trip learn about California's history at the Wells Fargo History Museum in downtown San Francisco, California. The museum, on the site where Wells Fargo first opened for business in 1852, features a Wells Fargo stagecoach that carried passengers, gold and mail across the western plains. (Photo by Robert Alexander/Getty Images)

Some of America’s most well-known companies went through big changes before becoming the dominant corporations they are today. The origin of one of today’s most famous beauty products company is door-to-door book distribution. A semiconductor manufacturer first produced devices for oil exploration. But no matter their origins, all these companies grew to become Fortune 500 companies.

Many of the companies with unusual origins evolved to keep up with technological and cultural developments. One of America’s oldest companies, DuPont, was founded in 1802, when it specialized in explosives. Wells Fargo, now a large banking and financial firm, started in 1852 when it was known primarily for its express mailing service memorialized in its iconic stagecoach.

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Often, the difference between a company’s original product and its current offerings is less dramatic than it seems. While Texas Instruments was originally part of the oil industry, its involvement was technological -- it produced and offered oil exploration companies a reflection seismograph. Food and health care services are also considerably different from one another. Cardinal Health, however, did not alter its primary function as a wholesale distributor.

To identify the companies with the most unusual origins, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed the corporate history of the 2013 Fortune 500. Financial data is based on company filings.

These are the nine companies with the most unusual origins.

1. Berkshire Hathaway
> Year founded: 1888
> Original product/service: Cotton production
> 2013 revenue: $182.2 billion

Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (BRK-B) has come a long way from its beginnings as a textile manufacturer to its current role as Warren Buffett’s famed investment vehicle. The company reported revenues of more than $182 billion last year. Berkshire Hathaway’s roots can be traced back to 1888, when Horatio Hathaway founded The Hathaway Manufacturing Company, a cotton producer. Due to a variety of factors, most notably foreign competition, the company would eventually cease all textile production under Buffett by 1985. Buffett had steered the company toward insurance, and from there into businesses as diverse as railways, private jet fleets and carpeting.

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2. Cardinal Health
> Year founded: 1971
> Original product/service: Food distribution
> 2013 revenue: $101.1 billion

Like several companies with strange origins, drug wholesaler Cardinal Health Inc.’s (CAH) path involved acquiring numerous other companies and selling several others. In 1971, founder Robert D. Walter started what would soon become a successful food distribution company, called Cardinal Foods. After expanding into pharmaceutical distribution, Cardinal sold its food segment and became increasingly focused on pharmaceutical products. Today, Cardinal Health is an industry leader and has been a Fortune 500 company since 1995.

3. Wells Fargo
> Year founded: 1852
> Original product/service: Banking and delivery services
> 2013 revenue: $87.8 billion

Wells Fargo & Co. (WFC) opened up shop in San Francisco in the mid-19th century at the height of the gold rush. The U.S. government had effectively adopted the gold standard by 1834, and Wells Fargo earned initial success by buying gold for exchangeable paper bank drafts. For this reason, the original Wells Fargo may not seem so different from its current capacity as one of the nation’s largest banking and financial services holding companies. The company’s express mail business, which delivered valuables and communications across much of the country, became its dominant business segment. It is no coincidence the company’s corporate symbol is the image of a horse-drawn stagecoach.

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4. DuPont
> Year founded: 1802
> Original product/service: Explosives
> 2013 revenue: $35.7 billion

Today, DuPont’s Tyvek brand -- a “building envelop system” that serves as a weather barrier -- can be found on construction sites across the nation. Primarily, however, E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company (DD) produces chemicals, competing with companies in the chemical and agricultural industries such as Monsanto and Dow. DuPont was the second-largest U.S. chemical company in the United States as of 2012, reporting nearly $36 billion in revenue in its most recent year. While DuPont has arguably always been a chemical company, its current line of products is quite different from its original vision: explosives. For nearly the entire 19th century, DuPont only manufactured black powder, a product in high demand during the War of 1812, the Civil War and over the course of the nation’s booming coal mine and road development. By World War I, however, DuPont had begun diversifying into non-explosives.

5. Raytheon
> Year founded: 1922
> Original product/service: Radio components
> 2013 revenue: $23.7 billion

Raytheon Co. (RTN) is a Fortune 500 company and one of the biggest military defense contractors in the world. But shortly after the company was established in 1922 by faculty members of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as the American Appliance Company, the company mass produced a component that enabled radios to be plugged into wall sockets. While Raytheon continues to provide the U.S. military with crucial technology, the company’s greatest contribution to most Americans lives might have come in the 1940s, when one of its engineers, Percy Spencer, noticed that a candy bar in his pocket melted when he stood near a magnetron. As a result, the first microwave oven was invented.

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6. Texas Instruments
> Year founded: 1930
> Original product/service: Oilfield services
> 2013 revenue: $12.2 billion

Texas Instruments Inc. (TXN) claims it has “literally transformed the world in 75 years” with its more than 15,000 patents. Perhaps it should not be surprising that the company itself has undergone dramatic changes since its inception in the 1930s. At the time, Geophysical Service Inc., which would later spin-off Texas Instruments in 1950, introduced the reflection seismograph, a device used to locate subterranean oil reserves. These days, it is unlikely the oil industry comes to mind when Texas Instruments is mentioned. Rather, most Americans may now associate the company with graphing calculators, which continue to be common classroom accessories. The company today produces a variety of technology products and is among the lead producers of semiconductors and other electronic components.

7. Marriott International
> Date company was launched: 1927
> Original product/service: Root beer
> 2013 revenue: $12.8 billion

With 3,900 properties and nearly $13 billion in revenue in 2013, Marriott International Inc. (MAR) is one of the largest and most recognizable hotel chains in the world. While hospitality has always been the company’s main focus, the company’s roots are far more humble. In 1927, founder J. Willard Marriott secured the A&W Root Beer franchise in Washington, D.C., and opened a nine-stool restaurant that became the first in a chain of Hot Shoppes in the northeast. The restaurant chain would eventually lead to the opening of the first Marriott hotel, the Twin Bridges Motor Hotel, in 1957. A decade later, the company changed its name to the Marriott Corporation. In 1995, two years after splitting the company into Marriott International and Host Marriott Corporation, Marriott International opened in its 1,000th hotel in Hawaii.

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8. Monsanto
> Year founded: 1901
> Original product/service: Artificial sweetener
> 2013 revenue: $14.9 billion

Monsanto’s first product was the artificial sweetener saccharin, introduced in 1901. By 1960, Monsanto Co. (MON) had moved into the agricultural sector, developing its line of herbicides. After investing substantial resources in biotechnology research, scientists working for Monsanto were the first to genetically modify plant cells, which would set the groundwork for the company’s current dominance as a seed distributor. Another notable oddity in Monsanto’s history is its involvement in the Vietnam War, when it sold the U.S. government Agent Orange, a weaponized herbicide designed to destroy entire forests, and blamed for many diseases later found in soldiers and the local population.

9. Avon Products
> Year founded: 1886
> Original product/service: Books
> 2013 revenue: $10.0 billion

With the iconic Avon Lady sales representatives, Avon is one of the most recognizable brands in the world when it comes to women’s beauty products. The company began, however, selling items that had less to do with fashion -- books. Founder David McConnell, a door-to-door book salesman in California, noticed the women he met were more interested in the free perfume samples he made and offered his clients than in his books. Originally the California Perfume Company, the business later changed its name to Avon Products Inc. (AVP). Avon has become an icon in American culture. It is considered to be among the first companies in the United States to offer women the chance to work for themselves. A Fortune 500 company, Avon reported $10 billion in revenue in 2013.

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