What is the most valuable company in history? Apple? Google? Maybe Exxon? These would all be very good guesses. As of this writing, Apple is the most valuable company in the world today, with a market capitalization of $ 1.8 trillion. Apple broke that $ 1 trillion market cap for the first time in 2017. Pretty impressive, right? Well can you imagine a business that was worth $ 7.4 trillion?
No matter how successful a company like Apple or Exxon is today, they are still far from being the most valuable company in history. This title belongs to a small operation called The Dutch East India Company. Sounds ridiculous, but at one point the Dutch East India Company was worth a $ 7.4 trillion. Widely recognized as the first multinational, the reach and power of the Dutch East India Company make today’s big companies look like little potatoes. The first company of its kind, the Dutch East India Company provided the framework on which all other conglomerates have been built since. The rise and eventual downfall of the business is both a lesson in business management and a major caveat.
The need for a Dutch trading company arose after Portugal excluded Dutch merchants from their trade agreements between Asia and Europe. The Dutch revolt in the late 1500s interrupted Spain’s control over the northern part of the Netherlands. Portugal being an ally of Spain, this hampered trade between the two countries. The ugly policy, combined with the fact that it was cheaper for Portugal to deliver spices to Europe via Hamburg, led the Dutch to be excluded from major trade routes. However, it quickly became clear that Portugal was unable to meet the demand for spices, so Dutch merchants started sending their own ships.
The new Dutch traders started off with some major advantages. Many Portuguese trade routes had been taken by Dutch captains, so they already had the knowledge and contacts in place. Over the next five years, increasingly larger shipments were sent by various merchants. While some crews perished due to pirate attacks, Portuguese attacks, and storms, many made the trip. Merchants began to form alliances with various small islands along the route, obtaining monopolies over the spices grown on the islands. Most importantly, they won the support of indigenous peoples, essentially hiring them to harass / attack merchants from other countries who used the same routes.
The British increased the pressure on all traders when they formed the first monopoly enterprise in the 1600s. Instead of investing individually in each shipment, English merchants, backed by the crown, now sent out massive shipments with combined resources. In order to remain competitive, the Dutch formed the Dutch East India Trading Company in 1602. Supported by the Dutch government, the Dutch East India Trading Company came to monopolize trade with Asia. Company executives were also allowed to make treaties with Asian countries and islands along trade routes. More importantly, they were allowed to form armies and build fortifications in order to defend these trade routes against other countries. The Dutch East India Company was, for all intents and purposes, its own country – a country whose sole purpose was to make the Dutch government and private investors richer. The Dutch East India Company and British trading companies finally regrouped in 1620, but by 1623 everything had collapsed. The disorder came to a head when twenty traders, including ten from Britain, were arrested, tortured, convicted and beheaded on charges of conspiring against the Dutch government. The British withdrew from the trade routes they shared with the Dutch, and the Dutch East India Company continued its rapid expansion with very little resistance.
The leader of the Dutch East India Company at this time was a man named Jan Pierterszoon Coen. Mr. Coen had some important ideas on how the business should develop and he refused to let anything get in his way. The Dutch have become ruthless in establishing control of their trade routes, and each successive leader of the company has followed Mr. Coen’s lead. By 1669, the Dutch East India Company had 150 merchant ships, 40 warships, a private army of 10,000 and 50,000 employees. The success of the company had made the original investors unimaginable wealth, as the company now boasted of paying a 40% dividend. At the height of their power in the mid-1600s, accounting records showed the company valued at 78 million Dutch guilders. When adjusted to modern dollars after inflation, this equates to $ 7.4 trillion.
However, all good things must come to an end, and this is the case with the Dutch East India Company. The problems began in the early 1700s, when multiple small wars interrupted trade routes. Then the spice trade started to dry up. The Dutch had always very carefully controlled the spice market, especially the pepper market, always having a little too much pepper available. This made it difficult for other countries to make a profit from selling pepper, as the oversupply depressed the market slightly. If someone else tried to start a spice business, believing that the market would eventually change, they found themselves disappointed and poor. The Dutch East India Company, which was very wealthy at this point, would just wait for them. This plan worked quite well until the demand for spices from Asia started to disappear. Suddenly they had to diversify and the economy of their new products – cotton, sugar, tea and coffee, could not match the money they had earned from the spice trade. They had also spent a lot of money creating armies and making treaties. However, several small companies began to make more lucrative treaties with islands and market poles that were originally loyal to the Dutch.
The headquarters of the Dutch East India Company in Hugli, Bengal, India. Around 1665:
By the 1780s, the Dutch East India Company had become a house of cards. Trade and trade routes declined. Although the Dutch East India Company was extremely successful, its employees were paid very little. (Sounds like all big companies today, doesn’t it?) As a result, the smaller factions within the company were stealing profits, when and where they could. Combine it all with the fact that the employees have passed away – All the time – due to the shipwreck and the attacks, and it was getting harder and harder to hire someone to work for them. In addition, the business took a long time to evolve over time. They had always brought all of their products to one central location in Batavia and then distributed everything from there. Other companies began to move directly from Asia to the port with the greatest demand for the particular products they marketed. The Dutch East India Company just couldn’t keep up, as it had an intermediate stop. Finally, their high dividend payouts ultimately exceeded their profits. In fact, the company quickly got into debt, as its high dividend payouts had exceeded profits for almost 10 years of the company’s existence. The business survived on early loans, but with all the problems it started to buckle. In 1799, the Dutch East India Company no longer existed. All of the islands and small nations it controlled were divided between the Dutch and the British after the Napoleonic Wars in the early 1800s, and that was it.
In two hundred years, the Dutch East India Company went from four ships on an exploratory expedition to the most successful company of all time to bankruptcy. Looking at its history, it’s easy to see that the business has simply grown too much, too quickly. This is proof that it is possible to be too efficient, too multinational, and dare we say, too greedy. Will today’s big oil companies, big media conglomerates and big tech companies ever find themselves collapsing under the weight of their own expansion? Will a business ever reach $ 7.4 trillion? The answer is probably no. Yes, the Dutch East India Company provides a prime example of how to develop a business. However, it also provides a great example of how to run it in the ground. The latter seems to be the lesson most businessmen have paid attention to.