In 1955, Ray Kroc opened a restaurant called McDonald's, which, on its first day, made the princely sum of $366.12. In the same year, the assistant managing editor at Fortune asked his secretary to compile a list of the 500 biggest industrial companies in America. The Fortune 500 was born.
As the pivotal event in the magazine's publishing calendar, the Fortune 500 wields huge significance. It is so influential that, in 2000, it spawned its own index fund.
To celebrate the list's 50th anniversary, Fortune will give over its entire issue to the list. As Jim Aley, Fortune's assistant managing editor, says: "The Fortune 500 is such a fascinating portrait of corporate power in the US as it charts the rise and fall of industries."
Fortune will also run a monthly series of 12 editorial features, sponsored by IBM, until March 2005. Each feature concentrates on a different aspect of business that shows just how dramatically the world has changed over the past half century. By way of example, the current issue's special feature looks at the rise of the credit card since it was invented in 1958.
Andrew Butcher, Fortune's publisher, says: "The Fortune 500 is the Rolls-Royce of business lists. We have an unequalled readership, huge editorial integrity and all the attributes of a leading magazine."
Commenting on what the 50th anniversary festivities aim to achieve, he says: "There have been some huge milestones over the past 50 years. Computers have been introduced, airlines have expanded and there have been cyclical ups and downs such as Black Monday in 1987 and the dotcom crash of 2000. All of these events have taken their toll on Fortune 500 companies, not only affecting business but also making an impact on people's daily lives."
Other events around Fortune's 50th birthday celebrations include a business innovation forum in New York City in November. The audience will comprise past and present chief executives from Fortune 500 companies. The magazine's website will also carry bespoke content from Fortune's archives.
The magazine is also leveraging its position as a cornerstone Time Warner property by offering advertising packages with sister media properties, such as CNN.
So what next for the list? Aley says: "The last major change was when we started including service companies in 1994. I'm sure there will be some vigorous internal debate about where we take the Fortune 500 from here. Now is a good time to reassess."
And to indicate just how much things can change in 50 years, McDonald's now owns 30,000 restaurants, serves 47 million customers every day and is ranked number 124 in the Fortune 500.
Publication date: 5 April 2004
Price for full-page, four-colour ad (in Fortune 500, worldwide): $122,400
Cover price: £3.00
Owner: Time Warner
Frequency: Annual (Fortune magazine is fortnightly)
Worldwide paid-for circulation (Fortune): 1,061,885 (excluding China)
Typical advertisers: IBM, Pitney Bowes, Royal Bank of Scotland
Rival titles: Businessweek, Forbes, The Economist
Local editions of Fortune: Europe, North America, Asia, China
Distribution: 85 per cent subscription