How many of the world's biggest companies are British?

Size still matters - and only three nations have more top firms than the UK.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 02 May 2019

Dunlop Rubber. ICI. EMI. GEC. Turner & Newall. British Oxygen. If you’d made a list of the biggest British businesses in 1973, when the UK joined the EU, all these companies would have featured, among the few worldbeaters we had in our sick-man-of-Europe days. None exist as an independent business today. The same, more or less, can be said of several of our biggest industries, from textiles and coal to shipbuilding and cement.

It would be wrong to suggest, however, that British business has somehow been on the losing side of globalisation. As the UK prepares to leave the European Union, it does so as the home of some of the most successful multinationals in fields as diverse as insurance and banking to advertising and petrochemicals.

No fewer than 88 of the Forbes Global 2000, which measures public companies by assets, revenues, profits and market capitalisation, were headquartered in the UK – more than any other country bar the US, China and Japan.

It would also be wrong to suggest that Brexit will have no impact on the standing of British business, though multinational titans are, by and large, quite resilient to shock. Prolonged uncertainty, trade disruption and a deep drop in the value of the pound could all have a major impact on the investment plans of both UK and global firms, says Mihir Kapadia, CEO of Sun Global Investments.

"Britain needs to play to its advantages, and those advantages stem from education, innovation and creativity," he explains. "The technology sector has grown substantially here – increasingly London is becoming a second base after Silicon Valley for a lot of the new generation of tech companies – and this will have a major impact on what I call our sunset industries.

"The government will have to look at taxation, immigration and other systems and ask whether we’re doing enough to encourage global investors to come here. How we shape our policy over the next decade or two will dictate how the world looks at us in the future."

To get a sense of our starting point in this endeavour, Management Today crunched the numbers on the Forbes 2000 list to see how the best British companies (see below for definitions) compare to their major international rivals, and took a look at 18 broad categories to see which global industries have UK-based companies in the top 20.

Source: Based on data from the Forbes 2000 list, which ranks the world's largest public companies by revenue, profits, market cap and assets. Correct as of May 2018. Average weighted rankings. Vedanta Resources was listed as British but has since gone private.

* Headquartered in multiple locations

** Pre-CYGB purchase 

How we defined a British company?

Gone are the days when a large corporation was actually from somewhere. What nationality do you assign a business when its registered corporate office is in London, its stock is listed in New York, most of its employees are in Asia, most of its investors are German pension funds and most of its tax gets paid to the Irish finance ministry?

Management Today’s solution to this Gordian knot of technicalities was to simply ask: where do the decisions get made? While in at least one case the answer we received was "usually at 40,000 feet", the firms on these lists do base at least some of their leadership teams in the UK. Companies that have multiple decision-making locations, including Britain, are marked with an asterisk.

The following companies that were listed by Forbes as British, despite only having a nominal HQ in the UK, were discounted: Fiat Chrysler, Aptiv, Mylan, Evraz Group, Mondi, Antofagasta, Michael Kors Holdings, Mallinckrodt, TC ICAP.

Image credit: Uncoated/Pexels

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