Business History

Business History is a featured research topic and an initiative at Harvard Business School.
Harvard Business School has a long tradition of investing in business history, and of asserting its central role in management education. In 1927, the School created the first endowed professorship in the field. It also founded the field’s first journal, the Business History Review. Since the work of Joseph Schumpeter at Harvard's Center for Entrepreneurial History in the 1940s, the School has taken an interdisciplinary and global approach to understanding business history. Today business historians at the School investigate a broad range of themes, including entrepreneurship, innovation, globalization, and environmental sustainability.

    John R. Wells and Gabriel Ellsworth

    Launched in 2000, ASOS was one of the world's largest online fashion specialists in 2016. Focusing on young consumers aged 16–25 years, the company offered over 80,000 items on its websites, many times more than the largest fashion stores, and added several thousand new lines every week. Based in the United Kingdom, ASOS shipped products to 240 countries and territories, and international sales represented more than 50% of total revenues. But when new CEO Nick Beighton took over from founder Nick Robertson in September 2015, he faced some significant challenges. While ASOS was large by online standards, traditional fashion retailers were building their own online sales capabilities, and Amazon was expanding its apparel offering. Meanwhile, new online competitors were emerging at a rapid rate. After ASOS issued several profit warnings in 2014, its growth had slowed to 18% in 2015. Beighton was convinced that ASOS's strategy was right and that the company needed to improve its execution to recapture its historical success. Some analysts were not so sure, and the stock price still had not recovered from its 2014 fall. ASOS' goal was to be "the world's no.1 fashion destination for 20-somethings." Did this lofty ambition make sense? And did ASOS have the right strategy to achieve it?

    Keywords: ASOS; AsSeenOnScreen; online fashion; online apparel; Nick Beighton; Nick Robertson; e-commerce; E-Commerce strategy; online retail; multichannel retailing; omnichannel; social media; marketplaces; shipping; Advertising; Online Advertising; Business Growth and Maturation; Business Model; Business Startups; For-Profit Firms; Customer Focus and Relationships; Age; Gender; Currency Exchange Rate; Profit; Revenue; Geography; Geographic Scope; Global Range; Global Strategy; Globalized Firms and Management; Globalized Markets and Industries; Business History; Selection and Staffing; Journals and Magazines; Human Capital; Business or Company Management; Crisis Management; Goals and Objectives; Growth and Development; Growth and Development Strategy; Growth Management; Management Succession; Brands and Branding; Marketing Channels; Marketing Communications; Marketing Strategy; Product Positioning; Social Marketing; Media; Distribution; Distribution Channels; Order Taking and Fulfillment; Infrastructure; Logistics; Public Ownership; Problems and Challenges; Strategy; Adaptation; Business Strategy; Competition; Competitive Strategy; Corporate Strategy; Expansion; Vertical Integration; Segmentation; Internet; Mobile Technology; Online Technology; Search Technology; Web; Web Sites; Apparel and Accessories Industry; Fashion Industry; Retail Industry; United Kingdom; England; London;


    Wells, John R., and Gabriel Ellsworth. "ASOS PLC." Harvard Business School Case 716-449, March 2016. View Details
  2. Reinventing Best Buy

    John R. Wells and Gabriel Ellsworth

    On February 25, 2016, Best Buy announced a second year of comparable-store sales increases and a 13.5% increase in online sales. These results were in marked contrast to four years of declining comparable-store sales from 2010 to 2013. CEO Hubert Joly, appointed in August 2012, was now in his fourth year of reinventing Best Buy with his "Renew Blue" strategy. When he took over, Best Buy was losing share to, which was encouraging consumers to view products at Best Buy and other physical stores and then buy them for a lower price online, a practice known as "showrooming." Undaunted, Joly had encouraged the practice, convinced that it presented an opportunity to sell to customers as long as Best Buy's prices were competitive. Joly had committed the company to a multi-channel strategy in North America and exited struggling international operations. Operating margins had increased as a result, but growth was still proving elusive. Had Joly done enough to reinvent Best Buy?

    Keywords: Best Buy; Hubert Joly; Renew Blue; showrooming; webrooming; e-commerce; E-Commerce strategy; online retail; multichannel retailing; omnichannel; marketplaces; turnaround; consumer electronics; consumer electronics accessories; appliances; stores-within-stores; store experience; store size; store pickup; store management; Business Subsidiaries; Business Units; Business Growth and Maturation; Business Model; For-Profit Firms; Customer Focus and Relationships; Customer Satisfaction; Entertainment; Film Entertainment; Games, Gaming, and Gambling; Music Entertainment; Television Entertainment; Theater Entertainment; Price; Profit; Revenue; Geographic Scope; Multinational Firms and Management; Business History; Cost; Selection and Staffing; Reports; Technological Innovation; Job Cuts and Outsourcing; Human Capital; Leading Change; Business or Company Management; Goals and Objectives; Growth and Development; Growth and Development Strategy; Management Teams; Brands and Branding; Product Marketing; Consumer Behavior; Demand and Consumers; Media; Distribution; Order Taking and Fulfillment; Distribution Channels; Infrastructure; Product; Service Delivery; Service Operations; Organizational Change and Adaptation; Public Ownership; Problems and Challenges; Programs; Groups and Teams; Sales; Salesforce Management; Strategy; Adaptation; Business Strategy; Competition; Competitive Advantage; Competitive Strategy; Corporate Strategy; Expansion; Technology; Hardware; Information Technology; Internet; Mobile Technology; Online Technology; Search Technology; Software; Web; Web Sites; Wireless Technology; Resource Allocation; Computer Industry; Electronics Industry; Entertainment and Recreation Industry; Information Technology Industry; Retail Industry; Service Industry; Technology Industry; Telecommunications Industry; Video Game Industry; United States; Minnesota; Minneapolis; Saint Paul; St. Paul;


    Wells, John R., and Gabriel Ellsworth. "Reinventing Best Buy." Harvard Business School Case 716-455, March 2016. View Details
  3. IC Group A/S

    John R. Wells and Gabriel Ellsworth

    IC Group owned several of Scandinavia's leading premium fashion brands. How should it respond to the decline of its primary wholesale distribution channels (independent fashion boutiques and department stores)? Should it open more physical stores or focus on e-commerce? Where should the Group focus its international expansion? How could it best leverage its operating platform to drive the profitability of its brands? Should it acquire existing brands or build new ones itself? In short, what should its "omni-channel retailing" strategy be?

    Keywords: IC Group; IC Companys; Carli Gry; InWear; Mads Ryder; Niels Martinsen; premium fashion; fast fashion; Business Units; Business Divisions; Business Growth and Maturation; Business Model; Business Organization; For-Profit Firms; Profit; Revenue; Multinational Firms and Management; Business History; Business or Company Management; Acquisition; Growth and Development Strategy; Brands and Branding; Distribution Channels; Organizational Design; Organizational Structure; Problems and Challenges; Strategy; Product Positioning; Competition; Competitive Strategy; Corporate Strategy; Vertical Integration; Segmentation; Web Sites; Apparel and Accessories Industry; Fashion Industry; Retail Industry; Scandinavia; Denmark; Sweden; Norway;


    Wells, John R., and Gabriel Ellsworth. "IC Group A/S." Harvard Business School Case 716-446, March 2016. View Details
  4. George Washington and the Foundations of American Democracy

    Tom Nicholas and Matthew G. Preble

    George Washington is perhaps the most well-known of the U.S.'s founding fathers because of his political and military achievements. However, Washington also operated a number of successful business ventures out of his Mount Vernon estate, and he became a landowner on the American frontier. Washington's life and career serve as a lens for understanding the development of the early American economy. Washington was entrepreneurial both economically and politically. He played a central role in helping to structure the new country's national government and developed a number of precedents as the country's first executive.

    Keywords: government; history; leadership; entrepreneurship; George Washington; democracy; Decision Making; Entrepreneurship; Government and Politics; Business History; Leadership; United States;


    Nicholas, Tom, and Matthew G. Preble. "George Washington and the Foundations of American Democracy." Harvard Business School Case 816-019, August 2015. (Revised February 2016.) View Details
  5. Markets with Price Coherence

    Benjamin Edelman and Julian Wright

    In markets with price coherence, the purchase of a given good via an intermediary is constrained to occur at the same price as a purchase of that same good directly from the seller (or through another competing intermediary). We examine ten markets with price coherence, including their origin and outcomes as well as concerns and policy interventions.

    Keywords: intermediaries; platforms; Two-Sided Markets; vertical restraints; Price; Distribution Channels; Business History; Financial Services Industry; Travel Industry; Insurance Industry; Real Estate Industry; Advertising Industry;


    Edelman, Benjamin, and Julian Wright. "Markets with Price Coherence." Harvard Business School Working Paper, No. 15-061, January 2015. (Revised March 2015.) View Details
  6. John D. Rockefeller: The Richest Man in the World

    Tom Nicholas and Vasiliki Fouka

    By the late nineteenth century scale and managerial hierarchies had extended to several major industrial sectors of the U.S. economy. Although the precise mechanisms often varied, this process mainly involved horizontal integration, some form of legal or administrative centralization followed by vertical integration. Standard Oil represents the canonical example of this development. Standard Oil's history is also fully intertwined with the life and career of John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937), one of the most remarkable individuals to define the landscape of American business. Rockefeller's estimated $1.4 billion net worth in 1937 was equivalent to 1.5% of U.S. GDP. According to this metric he was (and still is) the richest individual in American business and economic history.

    Keywords: Horizontal Integration; Wealth; Business History; Vertical Integration; Consolidation; Personal Development and Career; Energy Industry; United States;


    Nicholas, Tom, and Vasiliki Fouka. "John D. Rockefeller: The Richest Man in the World." Harvard Business School Case 815-088, December 2014. View Details
  7. Doing Business in Morocco

    Jill Avery, Tonia Junker and Daniela Beyersdorfer

    This case examines the challenges and opportunities of doing business in Morocco. It highlights Morocco's ongoing economic transformation in the decades leading up to 2014 in the context of its historical, political, and cultural background. The case summarizes some of the main obstacles faced by businesses operating in the country—changing regulations and insufficient access to credit, infrastructure and talent constraints, and a large informal sector—contrasting these with the benefits of operating in a market that provides access to the African continent and proximity to Europe, has relatively low labor costs, and has created a series of investment incentives. Some of these challenges are illustrated through the discussion of an investment decision by French car maker Renault, which opened a new manufacturing facility in Morocco's free trade zone near Tangier. Now a few years into operating the facility, the case zooms in on some of the obstacles that Renault encountered, such as scarcity of trained staff and of local suppliers, and on the progress that was made, in order to evaluate the potential of the investment going forward.

    Keywords: emerging market; emerging economies; Africa; business history; strategy; global strategy; operations management; Development Economics; Geographic Scope; Globalization; Business History; Emerging Markets; Market Entry and Exit; Operations; Strategy; Auto Industry; Africa; Morocco;


    Avery, Jill, Tonia Junker, and Daniela Beyersdorfer. "Doing Business in Morocco." Harvard Business School Case 315-007, September 2014. (Revised September 2015.) View Details
  8. RCA: Color Television and the Department of Justice (A)

    Willy C. Shih and Gregory Dieterich

    This case examines the early history of the color television receiver market, and the global consequences of an historic 1958 consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice that opened RCA's patents to licensing by domestic competitors royalty-free. This externality had a dramatic impact on the long-term health of the U.S. consumer electronics industry. The associated (B) case is 614-073.

    Keywords: Intellectual Property; Patents; Rights; Business Strategy; Competitive Strategy; Corporate Strategy; Business History; Technology; Hardware; Communications Industry; Media and Broadcasting Industry; Electronics Industry; United States; Japan;


    Shih, Willy C., and Gregory Dieterich. "RCA: Color Television and the Department of Justice (A)." Harvard Business School Case 614-072, May 2014. View Details
  9. Samuel Slater & Francis Cabot Lowell: The Factory System in U.S. Cotton Manufacturing

    Tom Nicholas and Matthew Guilford

    At the time of the American War of Independence (1776-1783) and for several decades after it, Great Britain dominated the global production of cotton textiles. In fact, Britain became so dominant in textile manufacturing and trading that Manchester, its industrial capital, was nicknamed "Cottonopolis." By contrast, American manufacturing of export-oriented or even tradable-quality cotton textiles was practically nonexistent. This position of relative American backwardness changed with the influence of two prominent individuals: Samuel Slater (1768-1835) and Francis Cabot Lowell (1775-1817). Slater, a skilled British textile machinery engineer helped to develop the country's first cotton spinning mill. Lowell, a member of a prominent New England mercantile family, established the first integrated cotton spinning and weaving facility in what became the city of Lowell, Massachusetts. Together Slater and Lowell brought the sophistication of British industrial revolution technology and introduced innovative methods of factory production to the United States.

    Keywords: Technological Innovation; Production; Business History; Manufacturing Industry; Great Britain; Massachusetts;


    Nicholas, Tom, and Matthew Guilford. "Samuel Slater & Francis Cabot Lowell: The Factory System in U.S. Cotton Manufacturing." Harvard Business School Case 814-065, January 2014. View Details
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