4 Companies That Can Thrive Without Their Famous Founders

By Todd Bunton of Zacks.com

NEW YORK ( Zachs.com) -- Would Apple ( AAPL) survive without Steve Jobs?

It's a grim question, but it's one that investors are asking themselves after it was recently announced that Jobs would be taking another medical leave of absence.

Investors shouldn't panic -- for now at least. Although Jobs won't be running the day-to-day operations, he will still be involved in major strategic decisions at the company. And it's his strategic decisions that have led Apple to stratospheric heights. The company's ability to skate to where the puck is going, not to where it has been, is the result of Steve Jobs' leadership and vision.

Apple also has an excellent team set in place that has taken over for Jobs during his other health-related absences. In 2004, Jobs left the company to battle pancreatic cancer and also took medical leave to recover from a liver transplant in the first half of 2009. In both cases, Chief Operating Officer Tim Cook successfully managed the day-to-day operations while marketing chief Phil Schiller and industrial design king Jony Ive continued to deliver hot new products.

But what happens when Steve Jobs finally leaves for good?

Apple will survive, but it won't be the same company. Steve Jobs is Apple. Odds are a new leader will make decisions that will take the company down a different path, and the new Apple won't have the same cachet it has today (of course, even with a visionary like Jobs, eventually Apple's growth has to level off).

This is exactly what happened for several years to Walt Disney ( DIS). Granted, the company is a powerhouse once again, but it struggled for years to regain its "magic" after Walt died in 1966.

Some CEOs are so synonymous with their companies that it's almost impossible to imagine the company surviving without them. But why is it that some companies have been able to successfully manage the departure of their larger-than-life founders while others have failed?

A lot of it depends on their business model. Apple and Disney's success hinges upon creativity, innovation and an almost mystic-like feel to their products that is almost impossible to replicate without their famous founders.

On the other hand, there are companies like Wal-Mart ( WMT) that have been successful after the founder steps away. Sam Walton was a visionary when he started his everyday low-price retailer. But as the company expanded and gained buying power, it was able to offer even lower prices, and the company continued to thrive after his death in 1992.

So what companies today would continue to thrive if their famous founders were to leave? Here are four:

Amazon.com ( AMZN)

Jeff Bezos founded Amazon.com in 1994. What started as an online bookstore has grown into the largest online retailer in the world. When the dot-com bubble burst, many online retailers went belly up, but Bezos was able to successfully navigate the company towards profitability.

Can the company thrive without Time's Man of the Year (1999)? I think so. Amazon has become the Wal-Mart of online retailing (it attracts more than twice as much traffic as walmart.com), and more shoppers are moving away from traditional brick-and-mortar stores and towards Amazon. This is inevitable with or without their fearless leader.

It is a Zacks No. 3 Rank (Hold) stock.

Oracle ( ORCL)

CEO Larry Ellison, the world's sixth richest man, has a larger-than-life persona. He has been at the company's helm since he founded it back in 1977. The company, best known for its flagship product the Oracle Database, is the third-largest in terms of software revenue in the world, behind Microsoft and IBM.

But Oracle is expanding beyond enterprise software. It acquired Sun Microsystems in 2010 and has nearly $25 billion in cash and short-term investments, so expect more acquisitions in the future. As the company becomes more diverse, it will also become less reliant on Ellison.

It is a Zacks No. 1 Rank (Strong Buy) stock.

Berkshire Hathaway ( BRK.B)

From one Oracle to the next. Warren Buffett. Berkshire's famous Chairman and CEO has grown the company into one of the largest and most respected in the world. Buffett has used the "float" from the company's insurance operations to finance his savvy investments.

Much has been made of who will replace him once the octogenerian finally departs. In October, the company announced 39 year-old hedge fund manager Todd Combs would eventually replace Buffett as its chief investment officer. But certainly no one could replicate Buffett's investing success going forward, so Berkshire is doomed, right?

Not necessarily. Because Buffett likes to own entire companies, he has grown Berkshire into a diversified holding company of more than 50 businesses. Berkshire is so large that each additional acquisition has less and less impact on Berkshire's bottom line.

It is a Zacks No. Rank (Hold) stock.

Charles Schwab ( SCHW)

Charles Schwab founded his company in San Francisco in 1971. In 1975, he began offering discount brokerage, and the rest is history. Chuck already stepped down as CEO in October 2008 but remains chairman of the Board.

Although new CEO Walt Bettinger has some big shoes to fill, is it that difficult to picture the company surviving without its founder?

Not for me. The company has thrived, and will continue to thrive, because of its low-cost business model.

It is a Zacks No. 3 Rank (Hold) stock.

Todd Bunton is the Growth & Income Stock Strategist for Zacks.com.

This commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet guest contributor program. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of TheStreet or its management.

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