Fortune 500: Brands that lastMay 7, 2013: 10:09 AM ET
What we learned visiting Fortune 500 companies around Silicon Valley.
FORTUNE -- I heard a wise person say recently that we don't work for companies. We work for brands. That resonated for me. I work for Fortune, one of the great American brands, a name that stands for quality journalism, seriousness of purpose, intellectual curiosity, analytical rigor and all the things that have given Fortune the staying power of decades.
Schmaltzy? Guilty as charged. It's a joy in this world of insta-brands and perishable content to be associated with a legacy and current team that is bigger than I'll ever be.
So when Fortune's top brand steward, Managing Editor Andy Serwer, asked me to drive around Silicon Valley to thank and congratulate a handful of other great brands—the local companies in the Fortune 500—I eagerly accepted. We decided to celebrate Fortune 500 Day by personally saying hello to the leaders of the some of the companies on the list.
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I set off from San Francisco in a shiny red Ford (F) Fusion Titanium Hybrid, a plug-in electric variety made by Ford Motor Co. (No. 10), festooned with "Happy Fortune 500 Day" magnets on each side. (More about the car later), with Fortune reporter Kurt Wagner as my wingman, photographer and wrangler. Our first stop was a quick meeting with Mike Splinter, CEO of semiconductor manufacturing equipment maker Applied Materials (AMAT, No. 302). Splinter was blunt that business is tough. Chip makers aren't expanding capacity fast enough to ensure growth and solar-panel capacity is currently dead. (Solar briefly added $2 billion in annual sales to Applied; that has almost all dried up.) Still, Applied, based in Santa Clara, Calif., is hanging in, hunting for new markets, and continues to conduct half its manufacturing in the U.S., from a plant in Austin, Texas. That's likely why President Obama is visiting Applied on Thursday. Splinter plans to encourage the president to support federal research along the lines of the type that used to be done by Bell Labs and its peers.
Next we went to Sunnyvale to see NetApp (NTAP, No. 408), whose CEO Thomas Georgens explained to me how the enterprise storage business is being affected by the unlikeliest of factors: the consumer technology business. Huge consumer-facing Web companies increasingly are using faster-speed and higher-capacity flash memory, as opposed to traditional tape storage. Flash is more expensive but worth it for applications that serve customers quickly. I heard a similar message from SanDisk (SNDK) CEO Sanjay Mehrotra in Milpitas. That consumer flash memory pioneer now tilts toward business customers, including Apple (AAPL, No. 6), which, in case you were wondering, didn't meet with me Monday.
Shifting industries and locations, we drove up the 101 freeway to San Francisco to see John Hammergren, CEO of mighty McKesson (MCK, No. 14), the massive drug distributor. Hammergren confirmed my understanding that it's possible to say at least one good thing about the president's Affordable Care Act: By providing more people with health insurance we'll cut down on unnecessary emergency-room visits. He had plenty of detailed, thoughtful, and lamentable criticisms of the act too. I'm choosing to stay positive today. (Here's something else positive: Hammergren is shortly leaving the board of Hewlett-Packard (HPQ, No. 15); he doesn't seem too broken up about that.)
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Our last visit was with Martin Koffel, CEO of construction-engineering firm URS (URS, No. 248), based in San Francisco. This was a revelation: URS is 80% focused on North America, notably the tar sands industry in Canada and the Keystone pipeline in the U.S. Koffel is particularly bullish on the opportunities for infrastructure improvements in the U.S. In fact, he's perhaps the most optimistic CEO of a U.S. company I've spoken to in forever, outside the information-technology industry at least. (I'll have more to report from Koffel soon.)
As for that Ford Fusion hybrid, I loved it. Ford lent it to me—and a far more manly pickup truck to my boss in New York—to help us promote our big day and also Ford's success as a great American company that is proud of its vehicles. (Note to cynics: If I didn't like the car, I would simply have kept mum about it. My young daughter really liked it, but she stated unequivocally that was due to the car's shininess.) The model I drove, which retails for around $32,000, was quiet, powerful, comfortable, and sports an incredibly easy-to-use dashboard communications system. It synched with my iPhone in about 15 seconds.
From chip equipment manufacturing to flash storage to health-products distribution to a company that builds things, all in a car made by an American icon that's been around longer than Fortune. Not bad for a day's work.