Major anniversaries

Many Virginia companies and institutions are more than 100 years old

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Print this page by Robert Powell
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Altria traces its origins to a tobacconist who opened a
business in London in 1847. © 2016, Philip Morris Limited.

Entrepreneurs are a courageous lot. They pour their hearts and souls into starting businesses even though they are told 90 percent of startups fail before they reach their 10th anniversary.

In fact, government statistics suggest the odds of success aren’t quite that bad. The Small Business Administration reports that two-thirds of new businesses, 66 percent, survive through two years. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says half of all new businesses make it to their fifth birthday, and a third of the firms celebrate their tenth anniversary.

Beyond that point, however, the odds against survival begin to rise, especially for family businesses. Research has found that less than a third of family businesses survive to the second generation, and only 12 percent are passed to the founder’s grandchildren. The great-grandchildren probably can forget about working in the family firm. Only 3 percent of family companies make it that far.

These statistics offer some context to the remarkable feats achieved by the companies and institutions listed on the next page. The list includes more than 90 Virginia enterprises that are celebrating at least 20 years of operation. Nineteen in the group have been going strong for more than 100 years.

At 190 years old, Mason & Hanger is one of the oldest architecture and engineering firms in the U.S. It was started in the Richmond area by Claiborne Rice Mason in 1827. Now a part of Philadelphia-based Day & Zimmermann, Mason & Hanger acquired the firm Hankins & Anderson last year and now has offices in Glen Allen, Virginia Beach and Woodbridge.

Many companies on the list are familiar names: Altria Group, the parent company of Philip Morris USA, traces its origins to 1847 when tobacconist Philip Morris opened a business in London. Health-care supplier Owens & Minor began in 1882 when Otho O. Owens and G. Gilmer Minor, salesmen working for competing wholesale drug companies, decided to become partners. Petroleum additives company NewMarket Corp. traces its roots to Albemarle Paper Manufacturing Co., which began in 1887 and acquired the much larger Ethyl Corp. in 1962.

Three centenarians on the list are profiled in the following pages. They are the 100-year-old NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, 115-year-old Shenandoah Telecommunications (Shentel) in Edinburg and 175-year-old Richmond-based law firm Sands Anderson.

Langley actually began during World War I as the research center for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). The Wright brothers had been the first in flight in 1903, but by 1917 the U.S. needed to catch up with other nations in the military use of airplanes. 

The government again turned to Langley in the 1950s to play catch-up with the Soviet Union after its successful launch of the Sputnik satellite. By then part of the renamed National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Langley was the place that the first American astronauts trained for the Mercury program.

Shentel began operation in 1902 as a local telephone company owned by its customers. After acquiring Waynesboro-based nTelos last year, Shentel now is the sixth-largest wireless telephone carrier in the nation with more than a million customers. Some of the company’s shareholders today are descendants of its original customers in the early 1900s.

Sands Anderson has a distinction that few Virginia companies could match. Many of its early records were destroyed in Richmond’s evacuation fire near the end of the Civil War. The firm had already been in operation more than two decades by that time.

The firm’s founder, Alexander Hamilton Sands Sr., was a newspaper editor and minister as well as a lawyer. Sands also was the father of 13 children and three generations of the family practiced in the firm. The last died in 1996 at the age of 88.

List of Virginia companies celebrating major anniversaries

Anniversary Profiles:

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