NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Pierre Bonneau gets a lot of phone calls like this one: An elderly woman who has come across a pile of forgotten stock certificates while sorting through her files. The certificates are from 1959 and bear the name General Telephone.
Bonneau's business, founded by his parents in Montreal in 1969 and called Stock Search International, exists to answer the question: Is there any underlying value to the equity ownership once guaranteed by these now-moldering pieces of paper?
For a fee, Bonneau, who now runs Stock Search out of his house on Martha's Vineyard, will attempt to find out. The core of the job is investigative legwork -- kicking around in libraries and the offices of secretaries of state -- and it's here that Bonneau discovered that General Telephone & Electronics was the result of a merger between General Telephone and Sylvania Electric in 1959, that the company changed its name to GTE in 1982, that several stock splits had increased the holdings by a factor of 10, and that the share owner of General Telephone & Electronics in 1959 was a share owner of
"This for us shows the potential of old shares," Bonneau says in his Quebecois accent. "People will often say: it's too old, there's no value. It's like assuming all old wine is bad and has gone to vinegar."
Stock Search used to have more competition, but its one-time rivals are now more involved in old stock and bond certificates as collectibles along the lines of numismatics or philately. There's even a term for securities-as-collectibles -- scripophily. (
, run by Bob Kerstein, is one of these dealers.) The business, in other words, has shifted. Still, Bonneau says he receives between 15 and 20 such phone calls a week, on average, from all over the world. "Our specialty is to help people who don't know where to go. We are the last resort."
There's a common fantasy at the bottom of a business like Bonneau's, a certain kind of simplistic stock-market fable, akin to the logic of Antiques Roadshow, except with a Wall Street big-money twist: Being gifted a safety-deposit box full of old
E.I. DuPont de Nemours & Co.
(founded 1802) stock certificates that some long-lost ancestor bought at the turn of the century and that have now split into securities worth millions. The fantasy has its tragic inverse as well: The grandfather, say, who unloaded his portfolio of
in a panic in November 1929.
After all, the history of American business (from one point of view, at least) is an unbroken chain of innovation, explosive growth and epic wealth creation. That history gives rise to a form of common fantasy: How much would that one share of Big Blue, acquired when the company debuted on the
New York Stock Exchange
in 1915, be worth today? How rich would we have been made?
On the occasion of the centennial of the founding of International Business Machines Corporation,
has set out to create a list of the publicly traded companies, more than a century old, that have done just this: created wealth. We wanted to isolate, in as simple a way possible, those venerable institutions that have survived more than 100 years and that have still performed the best for investors in relatively recent times: over the last decade and the last 20 years.
Dozens of major U.S. corporations meet the basic requirement of tracing their roots earlier than 1911. But our objective was to focus on those businesses that remain the most relevant -- and by relevant we mean returning value to those who own pieces of them.
What better way to measure such a standard than sheer share-price appreciation? That's why we made sure to judge performance against two rudimentary but all-important figures: appreciation of the broader equities markets and the rate of inflation. Since 1990, the
has gained 280%. Since 1990, inflation has come in at about 65%. If a stock didn't beat those two (
, for example), it was left off our list.
And that's why you won't find many venerable banking institutions here --
, for example -- both of which can claim origins in the 19th and even 18th centuries, but whose equity values saw great harm in the most recent financial crisis. (IBM, by they way, with a dividend and split-adjusted increase of about 860% since 1990, just missed the cut.)
To trim the list even further, we didn't just look at recent stock performance. We culled from the pool of candidates those companies that have been altered through merger or acquisition, or that have gone into and out of bankruptcy. No
here (founded 1908, bankrupt 2009), no
(founded 1901, merged into
in 2002, spat out again two years later), no
(founded 1875, taken by the Belgians, 2008).
Without further ado, our list of the
Established 1892, Atlanta
Since 2000: Up 50%
Since 1990: Up 900%
Invented by a morphine-addicted pharmacist, the soda-pop formula that gave rise to a trillion-dollar industry may have been stolen by the founder of the company that became
. This favorite of Warren Buffett spews dividends, as do all the companies on this list.
All stock certificate images courtesy of Scripophily.com.
Established 1876, Minneapolis
Since 2000: Up 63%
Since 1990: Up 1040%
The origins of this now self-consciously stylish retail giant go back to George Dayton's honestly named Dayton Dry Goods store in Minneapolis. Eighty years later, post-World War II, the company is credited with inventing the shopping mall, erecting the first of these automobile-age edifices in Edina, Minn., in 1956. Dayton cut the ribbon on the first
-branded discount outlet outside St. Paul in 1962. One of the world's most innovate retailers across the decades, the company also started one of the first mass bookstore chains, B. Dalton, in 1966.
8. Johnson & Johnson
Established 1886, New Brunswick, N.J.
Since 2000: Up 84%
Since 1990: Up 1280%
The Brothers Johnson got their start as manufacturers of sterile surgery tools -- a novel idea at the time -- but its move into consumer products, a la Band-Aids, Baby Oil and Tylenol, are what turned
Johnson & Johnson
into a global juggernaut and household name.
7. Wells Fargo
Established 1852, New York
Since 2000: Up 78%
Since 1990: Up 1600%
The founders of
-- William Fargo and Henry Wells -- joined forces again in 1852, three years after the first strikes in the Sierra Nevada, in order to finance and service the California Gold Rush. They quickly moved the company's operations to San Francisco, entering their names into legend as the operators of the short-lived Pony Express.
survived the financial collapse of 1855, which saw an epic bank run, by keeping sufficient capital reserves on hand to meet clients' panicked demands for liquidity, a set of circumstances that brings to mind Ecclesiastes: There's nothing new under the sun.
Established 1837, Grand Detour, Ill.
Since 2000: Up 350%
Since 1990: Up 1640%
Founded as a manufacturer of plows by the Vermont-born blacksmith John Deere, the company made a brief ill-fated foray into the bicycle business in the 1890s. During the Depression, Deere claims never to have repossessed equipment sold with financing to farmers made destitute by the economic collapse. The product for which the company is most famous -- the tractor -- wasn't developed by
at all. It came to the company via the perspicacious acquisition of the Waterloo Gasoline Engine Co. in 1918. To this day, most of Deere's rolling agricultural machines are assembled at its Waterloo Works factory in Waterloo, Iowa.
Established 1901, Chicago
Since 2000: Up 50%
Since 1990: Up 1,660%
The country's biggest drugstore chain got its start in a corner store on the South Side of Chicago. The company's explosive growth between the wars was fueled in part by pharmacist-founder Charles Walgreen's business ambitions, and in part by his decision to sell bootleg whiskey under the counters of his stores during Prohibition.
4. Tiffany & Co.
Established 1837, New York
Since 2000: Up 120%
Since 1990: Up 1,735%
Merchant of "fancy goods" since 1837 -- the same year Procter teamed up with Gamble and John Deere sold his first plow --
founder Charles Lewis Tiffany is said to have published the country's first retail catalog in 1845. He was also marked by the legendary con artist Philip Arnold, who persuaded the jewelry magnate in 1872 to invest in what turned out to be a fake California diamond mine.
Established 1910, East Peoria, Ill.
Since 2000: Up 500%
Since 1990: Up 2,100%
Benjamin Holt built his first steam tractor in California to service the fast-growing farming community in the Central Valley there, but the move to Illinois, plus World War I -- which drove the company's transformation into a builder of equipment for use beyond farming -- created the company we know today as
Established 1806, Jersey City, N.J.
Since 2000: up 72%
Since 1990: up 2,380%
Founded by the British-born chandler William Colgate on the Hudson riverfront, the company made its destiny in the last decade of the nineteenth century. That's when the
"borrowed" the idea of putting toothpaste into special collapsible tubes from a Connecticut dentist named Washington Wentworth Sheffield. Mass production began in 1896, and the toothpaste boom was on.
1 Johnson Controls
Established 1885, Milwaukee
Since 2000: Up 370%
Since 1990: Up 3,200%
Inventor of the thermostat, this least-known of 100-plus-year-old companies has performed incredibly in recent years. Give thanks to
, all ye who've grown accustomed to room temperature: Without this Wisconsin industrial giant, there would be no such thing as modern indoor climate control.
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-- Written by Scott Eden in New York
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