Most of the largest companies in the world are easily identified by name: Apple makes electronics and smartphones; McDonald’s makes fast food; AT&T does phone and internet. Pretty basic stuff, right? It’s easy to remember massive corporations when their name is branded on all their products, or the name of the owning company matches the brand.
But there are quite a few companies that are not so well-known, even as they rake in tens of billions of dollars each year. These companies might make recognizable products, or run famous brands, or exert powerful influence over the economy, but very few consumers know their names or what they actually do. Some of the largest, most powerful, and most influential companies on the planet have names that most normal people wouldn’t recognize, even if they use their products every day. The reality of who owns what and who makes what is a rabbit hole that goes quite deep.
Multinational corporate giants now control most of the wealth in the world, and pull the levers of the global economy. Many of them remain largely unknown to us, even though they might make our food, clothing, automobiles, personal electronics, cigarettes, etc. Even if you’re an investor, you might not know the names of these firms or in what their business is.
Enterprises like “TJX Companies” or “Aramark Corporation” are not household names. However, if we were to say TJX owns T.J. Maxx, BJ’s Wholesale Club, and Marshalls department stores, and that Aramark distributes over a million meals to people in prison each year and owns Green Mountain Coffee, the names become much more recognizable and real, and it helps us to understand how the economy of the world really works.
In that spirit, here are ten hugely powerful, rich, and influential companies that most people probably haven’t heard of...
The name won’t mean much to most people, except maybe to conjure up images of elementary school children playing with colorful toys. But if you’ve used the internet in the past 20 years or so, you might have heard of a little search engine named Google. Alphabet Inc. became Google’s parent company in 2015, and even though it’s mainly known as “can’t we just call it Google?” it now has revenue of around $75 billion. By proxy it also owns YouTube, the world’s largest video-sharing website. What happened was that Google was originally Alphabet’s parent company, and then the two unceremoniously switched places, with Alphabet the owner and Google the subsidiary. The weird part is that was the plan all along, so that Google could run its core internet business separately from its other projects, with Alphabet as the umbrella. Confused yet? Well, all you need to know is that Alphabet is a tech giant that’s here to stay.
9 Yum! Brands Inc.
Though few people have ever heard the name, nearly every person on earth has eaten their food at one time or another. Let me put it this way: what if I told you that KFC, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, Long John Silver’s, and A&W were all owned by the same company? The appropriately-named Yum! Brands is the world’s largest restaurant company in terms of units, with 38,000 restaurant locations spread across 120 countries and territories. The Fortune 500 company’s most profitable brand is Taco Bell, followed by Pizza Hut and KFC. Not surprisingly, their revenue in 2015 was around $31 billion, a sum larger than the GDP of many countries. That’s a lot of quesadillas.
8 Saudi Aramco
The chances of you hearing the word “Aramco” on the street are pretty slim, but that doesn’t stop this Saudi oil company from basically controlling global oil prices and much of the supply. If it sounds scary that one company could have that much power, that's because it is. The best part is that before he was sacked earlier this year, long-serving oil minister Ali al-Naimi was de-facto head of OPEC and could single-handedly determine oil prices, since, as you may have heard, Saudi Arabia has a lot of oil money. Aramco’s estimated value ranges from a $1.25 trillion up to a whopping $10 trillion. Either estimate would make it the most valuable company in the world.
If you were building a résumé to be considered an agricultural giant, “controlling a quarter of U.S. grain exports” and “making all the eggs used in McDonald’s” would be two great entries. The $150 billion revenue doesn’t hurt, either. Cargill’s name isn’t a household one, but it was established 150 years ago when William W. Cargill bought a grain store in Iowa, and now it’s the largest privately held company in the United States. If it were publicly traded, it would rank number 12 on the Fortune 500. Historically, it prospered through massive food shortages in the 20th century, which is equal parts awesome and frightening.
6 Kraft Heinz
Okay, so you’ve probably heard both of these names individually before. But when we hear “Kraft” and “Heinz” we think of them as two separate products: instant mac and cheese and ketchup, and not a single, Godzilla-sized worldwide food company. Ten months ago, two food giants merged into one in a DBZ-esque fusion dance of epic proportions, creating Kraft Heinz. Gigantic by any definition, Kraft is less a “cheap mac and cheese” company and more a “operates 12 brands that make a billion dollars a year each” type. Yeah, that’s billion, with a “b.” Even fewer people know that they own recognizable brands like Cadbury, Nabisco, Maxwell House, Tang, Oscar Meyer, Velveeta, Jell-O, Planters, Kool-aid, and Boca Burger. A few might be missing from this list, but we’re sure you get the point. They’re now the world’s fifth-largest food company. Oh, and the “Heinz” part of the name? That’s right, they make your ketchup too.
5 Ingram Micro Inc.
The name Ingram Micro probably doesn’t mean much, but try listing off names like Apple, Acer, Cisco, HP, Nokia, IBM, Microsoft, and Samsung - all electronics vendors it represents. Ingram has a pretty sweet deal: it acts as a middleman between manufacturer and retail for desktops, notebook PCs, software, printers, and storage devices. It’s largely unknown outside of the corporate world, but when you’re the largest wholesale electronics distributor in the world, who cares? Ingram has little interest in its brand being known to most of the population and it has no real need for marketing. After all, who needs brand recognition when you distribute to Wal-Mart, Costco, and Staples?
4 Altria Group
Say the name “Altria Group” and most people will respond with shrugs, raised eyebrows, or will perhaps ask if it’s the name of some trendy new vitamin supplement. But say “Marlboro cigarettes,” and you will get “ohhh’s” of recognition, guaranteed. One of the largest tobacco companies in the world, Altria makes not only Marlboro, but Virginia Slims, Parliaments, Black & Mild, Skoal, and many more. The descendent company of Philip Morris, Altria has surprisingly (or from their perspective, perhaps thankfully) been able to avoid the public recognition and scrutiny of its predecessor. All that, and they even have a wine division, proving that cigarettes don’t just go well with beer.
3 Berkshire Hathaway
While it may sound like the name of a British lord character from a Saturday morning cartoon, this holding company is no joke. They have their fingers in nearly every pie you can name, including outright owning Dairy Queen, GEICO, Fruit of the Loom, FlightSafety International, Helzberg Diamonds, Lubrizol, BNSF, and NetJets. They also own about half your ketchup (or half of Heinz, anyway), and have significant holdings in Coca-Cola, American Express, Wells Fargo, and IBM. Whew. As if that wasn’t enough to earn them platinum status among the most powerful corporations, Warren Buffet (yes, that Warren Buffett), is their CEO, chairman of the board, and largest shareholder, because your name being synonymous with terms like “money” and “successful investing” means you get to stay the boss for a long, long time.
2 Johnson Controls Inc.
Cars and trucks are Johnson Controls Inc.’s business, and business is good. If you were thinking they build the vehicles in factories themselves, you’d be close, but mistaken. No, the company makes car batteries, car parts, electronics, and interior systems. This includes seating, doors, and controls for big players like Toyota, Ford, Volkswagen, and GM. It also makes most of the car battery brands you see, including Diehard, Duralast, Kirkland, and Motorcraft. Chances are if it switches on and off in your car, Johnson Controls made it. Just when you thought their business couldn’t get more omnipresent or lucrative, the Department of Energy wrote Johnson a record-breaking check under the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, to the tune of about $300 million just for building batteries for electric cars. Now, that’s a deal.
We saved the best for last, and this one’s a doozy. Bear with us: Unaoil is an obscure Monaco-based consultancy firm for petroleum companies. Or at least, it was obscure until earlier this year, when hundreds of thousands of secret emails and documents were leaked, revealing a massive global bribery scandal and widespread corruption in the oil industry. According to the leaked documents, which span over a decade, Unaoil’s job was to funnel multi-million dollar bribes to buy off state officials and rig contracts in the name of some of the world’s biggest oil companies. It greased palms (no pun intended) in oil-rich nations like Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, Libya, Syria, Yemen, the UAE, and Kazakhstan. Though Unaoil is not the largest company, or the richest, it’s incredible to think that for years this one tiny company run by a single family influenced geopolitics and the course of an entire industry.