The Worst Business Decisions of All Time

1. Motorola
> Years on Fortune 500: 56
> Peak Fortune 500 rank: 23 (1994)
> Peak revenue: $43.7 billion (2006)
> Current status: Split, Mobility unit sold

The success of the thin and stylish Razr cellphone drove Motorola’s 22% market share in mobile phones in 2006. However, the company failed to launch a new generation of smartphones leveraging the Razr brand, and by 2007 the company was selling the traditional cellphone at a discount. By the time the company released a new line of Razr phones in 2010, Motorola had to compete with products such as the iPhone and BlackBerry. While sales in 2006 were more than $43 billion, they were only $22 billion by 2010. Between October 2006 and March 2009, the company’s shares fell more than 90% from over $107 to less than $13. Motorola Mobility, now owned by Google Inc. (NASDAQ: GOOG), had 11.2% market share of mobile phones in Aug. 2012, according to comScore. Apple Inc.’s (NASDAQ: AAPL) iPhone, released in 2007, had a 17.1% market share.

Also Read: Great American Companies That Will Survive the Fiscal Cliff

2. Lehman Bros.
> Years on Fortune 500: 14
> Peak Fortune 500 rank: 37 (2008)
> Peak revenue: $59.0 billion (2007)
> Status: Went bankrupt

During the final few years of the housing bubble, Lehman Brothers increased the amount it borrowed to buy more mortgage-backed securities and real estate. By 2007, the company’s leverage ratio was at least 31-to-1, meaning it borrowed $31 for every $1 in equity. This brought Lehman Brothers huge profits in the boom era but became a serious problem once the housing bubble burst. The firm was unable to unload those assets onto the market once home and commercial real estate prices began falling, leading to unsustainable losses. While other investment banks, including Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (NYSE: GS) and Morgan Stanley (NYSE: MS), were heavily leveraged as well, they were able to survive by becoming bank holding companies eligible to receive the necessary emergency funds from the government to continue operations. Those aid programs however, became available too late for Lehman, which went bankrupt in 2008. A federal-bankruptcy-court-sponsored report later found that Lehman and its accounting firm partner, Ernst & Young, used misleading accounting tactics to conceal the extent of Lehman’s overleveraging, which the authors claimed was as high as 44-to-1. Both Lehman executives and Ernst & Young denied these claims. Between 1999 and 2007 Lehman’s revenue grew from less than $19 billion to more than $59 billion. During that time, the company’s rank on the Fortune 500 rose from 88th to 37th.

3. Firestone
> Years on Fortune 500: 34
> Peak Fortune 500 rank: 24 (1956)
> Peak revenue: $5.3 billion (1979)
> Current status: Bought out

Firestone began manufacturing radial tires in 1972 to lengthen the life of the products. The company used a new technique to get its tires to market ahead of competitors. That year, after Firestone’s tire was in production, company documents reported that the rubber came off the wire when the tire was in use. Despite these problems, the company continued to manufacture the tires throughout the 1970s to satisfy demand from customers like General Motors. But following pressure from the government and consumer advocacy groups that were concerned about the safety of the tires, the company recalled approximately 10 million tires in 1978. Initially, Firestone blamed tire failure on substandard maintenance by the consumer. However, an investigation by the National Highway and Traffic Administration in 1980 found that Firestone was actually aware of the defective products, citing to the 1972 documents.This lead to lawsuits and negative publicity that hurt earnings and sales. Although the stock bounced back from its low of $6.25 in April 1980, shares were still below their 1969 peak of $33.25 when Bridgestone successfully bid for the company in 1988.

4. Digital Equipment Corp.
> Years on Fortune 500: 25
> Peak Fortune 500 rank: 27 (1990, 1993)
> Peak revenue: $14.6 billion (1996)
> Current status: Bought out

The fortunes of Digital Equipment Corp., maker of commercial electronics known as minicomputers, began to decline in the 1990s. DEC was successful because its products were priced below mainframes, which were made primarily by International Business Machines Corp. (NYSE: IBM). DEC controlled the minicomputer market from the mid-1960s until the early 1990s but failed to enter the workstation and personal computer markets quickly. When DEC finally decided to get into PCs, it tried to use its own operating platform, VMS, without success. Meanwhile, companies such as Hewlett-Packard Co. (NYSE: HPQ) and Sun Microsystems were able to gain market share in workstations by using UNIX operating system, which allowed for many more software applications than VMS. Meanwhile, computers from Hewlett-Packard and IBM, which were based on the Intel Corp. (NASDAQ: INTC) blueprint and Microsoft Corp. (NASDAQ: MSFT) OS, began to dominate the PC market in the late 1980s. Between 1991 and 1996, DEC lost money every year except for one, including more than $2 billion in 1992 and 1994. After joining the Fortune 500 in 1974, the company peaked in 1993 at 27th. In just six years, it fell to 118th place before Compaq bought it out in 1998.

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