This week the people who decide what composes the Dow Jones Industrial Average booted off 3 companies and added 3 others.  What's remarkable is how little most people cared!

"The Dow," as it is often called, is intended to represent the core of America's economy.  "As the Dow goes, so goes America" is the theory.  It is one of the most watched indices of all markets, with many people tracking how much it goes up, or down, every trading day.  So being a component of the DJIA is a pretty big deal.

It's not a good day when you find out your company has been removed from the index.  Because it is a very public statement that your company simply isn't all that important any more.  Certainly not as important as it once was!  Your relevance, once considered core to representing the economy, has dissipated.  And, unfortunately, most companies that fall off the DJIA slip away into oblivion.

I have a simple test.  Do like Jay Leno, of Tonight Show fame, and simply ask a dozen college graduates that are between 26 and 31 about a company.  If they know that company, and are positively influenced by it, you have relevancy.  If they don't care about that company then the CEO and Board should take note, because it is an early indicator that the company may well have lost relevancy and is probably in more trouble than the leaders want to admit.

Ask these folks about Alcoa (AA) and what do you imagine the typical response?  "Alcoa?"  It is a rare person under 40 who knows that Alcoa was once the king of aluminum — back when we wrapped food in "tin foil" and before we all drank sodas and beer from a can.  To most, "Alcoa" is a random set of letters with no meaning – like Altria – rather than its origin as ALuminum COrporation of America. 

But, its not even the largest aluminum company any more.  Alcoa is now 3rd.  In a world where we live on smartphones and tablets, who really cares about a mining company that deals in commodities?  Especially the third largest with no growth prospects?

Speaking of smartphones, Hewlett Packard (HPQ) was recently considered a bellweather of the tech industry.  An early innovator in test equipment, it was one of the original "Silicon Valley" companies.  But its commitment to printers has left people caring little about the company's products, since everyone prints less and less as we read more and more off digital screens. 

Past-CEO Fiorina's huge investment in PCs by buying Compaq (which previously bought minicomputer maker DEC,) committed the rest of HP into what is now one of the fastest shrinking markets.  And in PCs, HP doesn't even have any technology roots.  HP is just an assembler, mostly offshore, as its products are all based on outsourced chip and software technology. 

What a few years ago was considered a leader in technology has become a company that the younger crowd identifies with technology products they rarely use, and never buy.  And lacking any sort of exciting pipeline, nobody really cares about HP.

Bank of America (BAC) was one of the 2 leaders in financial services when it entered the DJIA.  It was a powerhouse in all things banking.  But, as the mortgage market disintegrated B of A rapidly fell into trouble.  It's shotgun wedding with Merrill Lynch to save the investment bank from failure made the B of A bigger, but not stronger. 

Now racked with concerns about any part of the institution having long-term success against larger, and better capitalized, banks in America and offshore has left B of A with a lot of branches, but no market leadership.  What innovations B of A may have had in lending or derivatives are now considered headaches most people either don't understand, or largely despise.

These 3 companies were once great lions of their industries.  And they were rewarded with placement on the DJIA as icons of the economy.  But they now leave with a whimper. Their values so shredded that their departure makes almost no impact on calculating the DJIA using the remaining companies.  (Note: the DJIA calculation was significantly impacted by the addition of much higher valued companies Nike, Goldman Sachs and Visa.)

If we look at some past examples of other companies removed from the DJIA, one should be skeptical about the long-term future for these three:

  • 2009 – GM removed due to bankruptcy
  • 2004 – AT&T and Kodak removed (both ended up in bankruptcy)
  • 1999 – Goodyear, Union Carbide, Sears
  • 1997 – Westinghouse, Woolworths
  • 1991 – American Can, Navistar/International Harvester

Any company can lose relevancy.  Markets shift.  There is risk incurred by focusing on the status quo (Status Quo Risk.) New technology, regulations, competitors, business practices — innovations of all sorts — enter the market daily.  Being really good at something, in fact being the worlds BEST at something, does not insure success or longevity (despite the popularity of In Search of Excellence). 

When markets shift, and your company doesn't, you can find yourself without relevancy.  And with a fast declining value.  Whether you are iconic – or not.

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