Your company’s story:
How do you tell it?

Whether your family’s historical documents are neatly organized in scrapbooks or scattered in shoeboxes, they can help bring the story of your company to life.

By John Myers

During the 20th century, Extraco Corporation had grown from a family-owned cotton warehousing company to become the largest privately owned bank between Dallas and San Antonio, with 13 financial centers and 535 employees in central Texas. As Extraco approached its centennial in 2002, president and CEO S. Boyce Brown knew the company had reached an important juncture. In an era when most businesses had failed within their first 20 years, Extraco had exhibited extraordinary stability and longevity.

To commemorate Extraco’s achievements, Brown commissioned our firm to chronicle the company's history—its values, its culture, its successes and challenges.

“I felt it important to document and pay tribute to our past leaders and rich family heritage,” Brown says. “A written history of our first 100 years allows us to share our story with employees, business associates, family and friends.”

What to include; where to start?

The task of chronicling the life and breadth of a family’s business may appear daunting at first. Some business owners maintain well-ordered files dating to the company’s founding, while others may have mere scraps of historical information scattered in boxes and drawers.

When Brandt Consolidated, a family-owned agricultural fertilizer company based in Illinois, decided to chronicle 50 years of business, our client Rick Brandt knew he had a jump start on the process. “Luckily, we have a live-in historian, my aunt, who has done a great job of documenting events through the years—saving pictures, keepsakes, etc.,” Brandt says. “She was well prepared to take on this project.”

Business owners should provide the writer with any documents that they believe will help tell the company's story, including:

• Board meeting minutes.

• Official memos and company directives.

• Newspaper clippings.

• Annual reports.

• Official company photographs.

• Personal letters and family photographs.

• Awards and commemorations of important milestones.

Less obvious but equally telling items, particularly those dating to a company’s early days, help create context for the story and flesh out otherwise sketchy details. These include posters, placards or handbills, old newspaper advertisements and even receipts and itemized bills of sale.

A researcher/writer will get this process started by meeting with a business owner and other principals to discuss important events and issues in the organization’s history and help the family determine what is needed. In addition to leafing through written materials, a writer should be prepared to search through local repositories, such as a historical society, university archive or newspaper collection. The writer can help refresh family members’ memories by organizing events into a chronology and developing an outline to confirm that significant topics will be included.

Whose voice to hear?

It’s important for your company history to include reflections from a diverse chorus of people. That list may include anyone who has contributed to the success of the company, from the CEO to the unheralded, behind-the-scenes worker.

Honoring employees was an important reason why Brandt Consolidated invested in a company history, according to Rick Brandt. “It has built pride and demonstrated stability with everyone in the organization,” he says. “Many were honored [to contribute], and had stories to tell about their relationships and memories. The book certainly preserves the stories and images of our founding and most of the important events and turning points through the first 50 years.“

Brandt notes that the book has helped to supplement presentations because it provides an overview of the company. “It definitely captures our values and culture, which is strongly portrayed, as we are a family company that recognizes each of our employees’ families, too.”

John Myers is the founder of Heritage Publishers, Phoenix, Ariz., which has been creating custom books for clients around the country since 1986 and provides editorial, design and printing/binding/shipping services (