Age is just a number
At the peak of the Roman Empire, Hadrian’s Wall in Northern England was built to mark the limit of the largest empire Europe would ever see. That wall, even if worn out by the elements of nature, is still standing today, almost 2,000 years old of age.
It may seem contradictory to consider that old age is a fundamental reason to believe in the future, particularly when one ponders the proposal from Chuck Palahniuk on survival as a function of time: “On a long enough time-line the survival rate for everyone drops to zero.” It may also seem natural to think that innovation and energy are not typical characteristics of an old organization – Schumpeter’s creative destruction is commonly thought as an essential part of progress.
Being in business for 350 years as an organization is a clear sign of age. Comparing to similar international organizations, Saint-Gobain is well into the third age. It was almost 150 years old when today’s companies, like DuPont® (1802) and JP Morgan® (1799), were starting.
Age is commonly associated with fatigue and resistance to change; but when the passing of time is taken from the opposite angle (the future), the perspective does change.
Evolution and Mother Nature have shown, time and time again, that life depends on the ability to take the information from the environment and adapt accordingly. The test of time is the toughest of all when it comes to the survival of large organizations. The age of Saint-Gobain looks even older when one realizes that the average lifespan of a Fortune 500 organization is 40 years – and trending down.
When we think of old, the basic premise is that most of the years are behind, especially with the role of technology in our lives; but time has also shown that the older the technology the more chances of a longer lifespan. LP records and the basic technology of the phonograph brought the pleasure of music to the masses for almost a century; the cassette tapes for less than 40 years; the CD is fading out after 30 years and the MP3 technology will be outdated soon for good. For all the current tendency is to idealize new technologies, it is the old technologies that live the longest proving to be less fragile.
Extreme adversity in forms of revolutions, world wars, depression, competition, new technologies, etc. is part of what this organization has had to overcome by the test of time, adapting and growing. It is precisely the age of Saint-Gobain, with its cumulated knowledge and developed robustness, that we consider as the strongest of all the reasons to believe. Like and old technology, the life span will be long.
Very close to Hadrian’s Wall, right at the center of the city of Newcastle, within a pedestrian zone of a market street, there is a paving piece with an inscription done using the “old” technology of carving in stone. Busy walkers fail to see it below their own footsteps but some of us pay attention and then carry on reflecting on its meaning. 350 years are part of the meaning.
The streets will change, new companies will come and go and busy people will continue to walk the march of time. With the Wall as companion, the carved inscription will be there for centuries to come showing the exact same words:
“The past is my present to your future”