The Role of Diversification

Corporate diversification is everywhere. Virtually all of the Fortune 1,000 (the largest 1,000 corporations in the US) are diversified, many of them to a great extent. Some corporations consist of dozen—even hundreds—of different businesses. Besides such corporate giants, many smaller firms, some with only a handful of employees, also diversify.

What is the strategic role of diversification? Popular answers to this question have changed dramatically over the last several decades. During the 1960s, diversification fueled tremendous corporate growth as corporations bought up dozens of businesses, regardless of the good or service sold. Managers based this diversification on unrelated businesses on the assumption that good managers could manage any business, allowing the formation of huge conglomerates of completely unrelated businesses. In the 1970s, managers began to emphasize diversification based on balancing cash flow between businesses. Corporate managers attempted to diversify so that the resulting portfolio would offer a balance between businesses that produced excess cash flows and those that needed additional cash flows beyond what they could produce themselves. The 1980s brought a broad-based effort to restructure corporations, as managers stripped out unrelated businesses and focused on a narrower range of operations. Restructuring usually also involved downsizing, and the largest corporations shrank in relation to the rest of the economy. In the 1990s, corporations have once again taken an interest in using diversification to grow. But unlike the unrelated diversification that took place in the 1960s, the trend in the 1990s is to diversify into related businesses, or at least into businesses in which the strengths of a popular managerial team fit the needs of the new business being added to the corporation.

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