Using the criteria outlined in this article - fierce self-belief that allows the company to put responsibility to itself first; a strong sense of membership; a resilient power structure; tolerance of change and experiment on the margin; plus, de Geus would add, financial conservatism to provide a margin for safety in emergencies - which UK companies most nearly resemble the self-reproducing model which can be expected to outlast the rest?
There aren't many. In the top 50, most people would agree on Marks & Spencer, possibly Sainsbury (but not Tesco), Shell (but not BP), and Glaxo as the most likely paragons. Unilever, ICI, Boots and Cadbury Schweppes (if its Quaker inheritance runs strong enough) are less forceful candidates for immortality. These are companies whose death would cause surprise and some regret.
At the other end of the scale are those whose absence from the top-company lists of the year 2005 would cause few hearts to miss a beat, except on account of their size. These include GrandMet, Trafalgar House, Kingfisher and Ladbroke; one or two of the banks too if the system allowed them to reap the full rewards of their cyclical folly. GEC and BAT, already the subject of break-up attempts, are longer shots. Some individual advertising agencies - JWT, O&M, Saatchi & Saatchi - may well prove to have more enduring legs than parents WPP and Cordiant. Outside the very biggest companies, the water and electricity distributors look to have few of the attributes of immortality - except, ironically, everlasting demand for their essential product.
Much less obvious is the rating of successful conglomerates such as BTR and Hanson. On the face of it conglomerates, pure vehicles of the profit motive, belong in the thumbs-down category. But few would deny Hanson's fierce ideological core, the ability of its disciplines to motivate operating managers, and its capacity to see opportunities in 'mature' markets. Under Sir Owen Green, the much less extravagant BTR was held together by a religious belief in management. BTR's self-belief has faltered since the departure of Green; can Hanson survive the retirement of its founders? On balance, there must be question marks over both.