Altria Group (NYSE: MO), based in Henrico County, Virginia, is one of the United States' largest tobacco companies. It also operates an investment firm, Philip Morris Capital Corporation, and holds a significant stake in brewer SABMiller. Since March 2008, Michael E. Szymanczyk has been Altria's Chairman and CEO.
When London tobacco merchant Philip Morris opened his first shop in 1847, he doubtlessly had no idea how far his name would travel. He wouldn't even sell the first of the products with which his name would later become almost synonymous -- cigarettes -- until 1854, instead offering pipe tobacco, fine imported cigars, and other offerings that have since been linked to a higher incidence of lung cancer, heart disease, and other charming maladies.
His company went public in England in 1881, and opened its first U.S. branch in New York in 1902, in a 50-50 partnership between the original British business and new American investors. In 1919, another American firm bought the company outright and reincorporated it in the prime tobacco country of Virginia. In 1924, the company introduced its most famous brand, Marlboro, now known to rugged individualist cowboys with really awful-sounding coughs everywhere. The company expanded its international operations throughout the '50s and '60s, starting with an Australian branch in 1954. In 1969, the company solidified its sin-stock status by acquiring the Miller Brewing Company.
Philip Morris and its fellow tobacco companies' real challenges began in the 1960s, as the public became increasingly aware of the health risks linked to cigarettes. By 1971, the U.S. government had banned all cigarette ads from television, banishing the company that once sponsored I Love Lucy from the airwaves. As the long-term effects of smoking grew ever clearer in the public's mind, Philip Morris moved to diversify its business; it bought General Foods in 1985, and folded it into Kraft Foods when it purchased the latter company in 1988. (Nabisco, formerly part of rival R.J. Reynolds, joined the family in 2000.) In 2002, it sold Miller to South African Brewing, but kept a significant stake in the newly merged company.
By 2003, high-profile lawsuits and Congressional hearings had thoroughly tarred, yellowed, and blackened the name "Philip Morris" in the public eye. The company announced that it was changing its name to the cheerily neutral "Altria," complete with a happy rainbow-colored logo. In 2007, it announced the spinoff of Kraft (including the former General Foods and Nabisco) into an independent processed-foods juggernaut. Philip Morris International followed suit in 2008, leaving Altria once again solely focused on tobacco through its Phillip Morris cigarettes and newly acquired John Middleton pipe tobacco brands. Late in 2008, Altria went for the tobacco-products hat trick by announcing plans to acquire chewing-tobacco maker UST. The company also shuttered its New York City offices and moved the entire company to its old stomping grounds of Virginia.
Altria ranked 190th on the 2008 Fortune Global 500 list of the world's largest companies, with more than $38 billion in revenue and more than $9.7 billion in profits.
Brands and Divisions
Among many others, Altria's tobacco brands include:
- Benson & Hedges
- Virginia Slims
- Prince Albert
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