Secretive companies –it brings to mind the type of evil corporations found in science fiction. From the merciless profiteering of the Weyland-Yutani Corporation in the Alien franchise to the morally irresponsible behavior of the Tyrell Corporation in Bladerunner, all sorts of espionage and skullduggery is found at fictional companies.
What about secretive companies in the real world?
Whether they’re evil corporations, shadowy defense industries, or Willy Wonka-style confectioners, companies keep secrets for a variety of reasons. They stay under the radar to keep unconventional business tactics from coming to light, or to keep eccentric CEO’s from the public eye. Some companies keep secrets so they can maintain an edge over their competition; they protect secret recipes and formulas, algorithms, patents, and other intellectual property. Other companies are secretive because it boosts mystique, and mystery is a form branding. Here are 10 of the most secretive companies.
10. Osterhout Design Group
Osterhout Design Group, a small San Francisco-based company, creates heavy-duty smart glasses and high-tech scuba gear for the military. ODG was founded in 1999 as a technological incubation company and has succeeded with no external public funding, relying entirely on military contracts. Until now, ODG has been a non public-facing company, an organization as secretive as the James Bond gear it creates.
However, after Microsoft paid $150 million for some of ODG’s wearable computing patents, the company is now looking to branch out into the consumer market. In 2015, ODG plans to launch a consumer friendly version of its military-grade specs. Nima Shams, ODG’s vice president, says the glasses fall somewhere between Google Glass and Oculus’ virtual reality headset.
9. Bimbo Bakeries USA/Thomas’ English Muffins
Thomas’ English muffins are known for their trademark nooks and crannies, and according to the New York Times, only seven people know how the muffins get their “tracery of air pockets.” In 2009, Bimbo Bakeries USA bought the brand and has closely guarded its secret, which includes the basic recipe, moisture level of the muffin mixture, equipment used in baking the muffin, and the way the muffin is baked. In order to protect Bimbo’s $500 million in muffin sales, employees may know one or two steps of the process –information directly relevant to their assigned task -but not every step.
8. Renaissance Technologies
Founded in 1982, Renaissance Technologies is a hedge fund management company that currently has a global portfolio of over $22 billion in assets. The company is known for its “black box” formulas –the secret methods and equations used to predict price changes and market fluctuations. Mathematicians, statisticians, physicists, and other specialized thinkers with non-financial backgrounds develop these secret formulas, which are then carefully guarded. Are the algorithms the keys to outperforming the market and making money? Well, that’s the real secret. Still, while the company’s trading methodologies are secret, it’s no secret how successful the hedge fund is.
In 2008, Colonel Harland Sanders’ handwritten recipe of 11 herbs and spices was removed from safekeeping at KFC’s headquarters so the company could upgrade its security system. In a scene reminiscent of a heist film, the friend chicken recipe was placed in a lockbox that was then handcuffed to a security expert who was driven away in an armored car.
Colonel Saunders developed the “finger lickin’ good” recipe in 1940 at a small restaurant in southeastern Kentucky and used it to launch the famous chain. Today, KFC has more than 15,000 locations worldwide. In 2001, a Kentucky couple thought they found the secret recipe in the basement of their home. KFC sued the couple but dropped the case when it discovered the recipe didn’t match their own.
6. Trader Joe’s
What do you know about Trader Joe’s other than that it stocks low-cost, yuppie staples like cage-free eggs, organic blue agave sweetener, and Thai lime and chili cashews?
Contrary to the type of food it sells, Trader Joe’s isn’t owned by a West Coast co-op-style start-up. It’s owned by the Albrecht family, the same obsessively secretive German clan who are behind the Aldi Nord supermarket empire. Despite having over 344 stores in 25 states, Trader Joe’s headquarters is located 25 miles from Los Angeles in a non-descript building without a sign with the company’s name or logo. According to Fortune, Trader Joe’s has never participated in a major story about its business tactics.
5. Tootsie Roll Industry, Inc.
The Wall Street Journal calls Tootsie Roll Inc. America’s secret empire. Ninety-two year old Melvin Gordon, the oldest CEO of a business listed on the New York Stock Exchange, has run the 116-year company for over 50 years. The company’s business practices are kept under wraps and have become even more secretive over the years.
“I think the only way you can get a tour is by jumping over the fence and sneaking in,” said the last analyst who followed the company. Moreover, Tootsie Roll Industry doesn’t hold quarterly earnings calls and Gordon, like an eccentric Willy Wonka, doesn’t hold press conferences or interviews. Nobody knows “how many licks” it takes to get to the center of a tootsie roll, and nobody knows what is going on in Tootsie Roll Inc.’s Chicago factory.
4. The Six Organizations That Really Run the Internet
According to a recent study by WhoIsHostingThis, “Google is used by more than 60% of Internet connected devices every day, and accounts for more than a quarter of all Internet traffic.” More conspiracy theories swirl around the global search leader than the X Files or Da Vinci Code. However, Google doesn’t control the Internet alone, and contrary to “grassy knoll” theorists, the company isn’t part of the Illuminati or creating a Sky-Net-style dictatorship. Or is it?
WhoIsHostingThis cites six organizations that have power and influence over Google. These include The International Telecommunications Union, The Internet Society, The Internet Architecture Board, The Internet Engineering Task Force, Internet Service Providers, and The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. Google may be the king of the Web, but there are other secret organizations pulling the strings.
3. Monsanto Company
Founded in 1901, the Monsanto Company is a multinational agrochemical and agricultural biotechnology corporation. From bribing officials and suing farmers over patent infringements to polluting countries with toxic waste and feeding radioactive iron to pregnant women, the Monsanto Company has a long, dark, and controversial past. It has come to symbolize greed, scandal, corruption, and hardball politics, and if there’s one company that’s earned the name “Evil Corporation” both inside and outside of the U.S., it’s Monsanto. In 2014, worldwide protests against Monsanto took place. According to organizers, 436 cities in 52 countries took part.
Coca-Cola products are found in over 200 countries worldwide. Consumers down more than 1.8 billion beverage servings each day, yet nobody knows what the world’s most valuable brand is made of. Coca-Cola has carefully guarded its secret recipe since 1886. John Pemberton, an Atlanta chemist and former Confederate army officer, is credited with creating the elixir. He sold the recipe to businessman Asa Briggs, who placed the “Merchandise 7X” recipe in the Georgia Trust bank.
According to Mark Pendergrast, author of “For God, Country & Coca-Cola,” the labels are removed from the ingredients so not even Coca-Cola’s employees know what’s being used to make the fizzy soft drink. In fact, the Guardian says that only two of the company’s top executives know the secret formula, and they aren’t allowed to travel on the same plane for fear the secret recipe might go down with them.
Contrary to the mythology surrounding Coca-Cola’s secret recipe, the soft drink has changed over the years. Cocaine was removed from the soda in 1904, and in 1980, sugar was replaced with high-fructose corn sweetener.
Speculation, gossip, and questionably-sourced reports –Apple’s marketing tactics don’t just rely on secrecy but in building a shadow industry of espionage. The less that’s known about upcoming Apple announcements and products, the more public interest it creates. Apple products are the equivalent of highly classified CIA documents, and there’s an entire industry built around creating, spreading, and debunking Apple rumors.
Apple has sued bloggers for reporting on the company. It has also been accused of planting false information amongst is workforce –sting operations to smoke out the mole(s) if something is leaked to the press. In 2010, California’s Rapid Enforcement Allied Computer Team (REACT) raided the home of Gizmodo editor Jason Chen after he “obtained” an iPhone 4G prototype and wrote an article about it.
Are these stories true or simply misinformation tactics to boost Apple’s cultish mystique? Who knows? All we know for sure is that the Apple faithful line up in the thousands at their retail stores around the globe every time a new product is launched.