Tom Stieghorst
Tom Stieghorst

Nothing lasts forever, and that's nowhere truer than in the world of American business.

I was reminded of that reading a story on the decline and fall of General Electric Co. (G.E.), once the bluest of blue chip stocks and a model for management throughout much of the United States and the world.

For someone who grew up with its appliances and light bulbs, it is almost unthinkable that G.E. may be fading from the scene. It seems like it has always been around like the Allegheny mountains or apple pie.

Just like another great name that has one foot in the grave: Sears, Roebuck. The venerable retailer filed for bankruptcy protection in October and its days could be numbered barring a surprise revival.

Both G.E. and Sears were in the Dow Jones Industrial Average when I started paying attention to business back in the 1970s.  Sears was dropped from the 30-stock index twenty years ago, but G.E. endured until this year.

Of the 30 stocks in the index in 1978 only six remain, and United Technologies' plan to split up means it too will likely depart. Some were victims of a new technology (Kodak), an outmoded format (Woolworth), a flawed product (American Tobacco, Westinghouse) or industrial sclerosis (the car makers, the steel makers, International Harvester).

The winds of change are blowing for some of the remaining stalwarts as well - ExxonMobil and Chevron in particular.

The good news for the cruise industry is that it shows few signs of deterioration that has afflicted those departing from the Dow. If we take the lifespan of a successful corporation as 125 years (GE was founded in 1892; Sears in 1893), the big cruise companies are not even halfway there.

While only one cruise company (Disney, founded 1923) is big enough to be in the Dow industrials, the sector's bellwether, Carnival Corp., will earn several billion dollars this year and all the major players are growing.

Just as important, they are innovating. Look no further than Norwegian's go-carts, Celebrity's Magic Carpet, or Carnival Cruise Line's roller coaster announcement last week to see evidence of a vibrant, competitive, customer-focused industry.

Although by many standards they are mature businesses after 50 years, the cruise companies still have a lot more room to grow and re-invent themselves.

Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. chairman Richard Fain began talking last year about being in a Golden Age of cruising and he just might be right. If you take 125 years as the lifecycle from founding to foundering, the best days of the cruise industry are still ahead.

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