Most Hated Companies

Think BP is universally loathed? The oil giant has nothing on United Fruit, Union Carbide, and other corporate rogues. The Daily Beast surveys top historians to determine the all-time worst.

Gerald Herbert / AP Photo,Gerald Herbert

Gerald Herbert / AP Photo

#13, Drexel Burnham

Era: Late 1980s

Before Dick Fuld and Dick Grasso, AIG and Enron, and every other poster boy for Wall Street greed and excess, there was Michael Milken, the junk-bond king of Drexel Burnham. Milken was a financial genius and a pioneer—“high-yield bonds” were revolutionary, a high-risk, high-reward way for companies to raise money. But used recklessly, they were a tool to tear apart otherwise healthy companies—the era of the hostile takeover was on. And even after a staggering $550 million bonus in 1986, Milken couldn’t help himself—he was convicted of securities fraud, part of Ivan Boesky’s insider-trading ring. Boesky was the inspiration for Gordon “Greed is Good” Gekko, but it was Milken who epitomized the iconic ‘80s Wall Street villain. Milken served nearly two years in prison, and Drexel Burnham went kaput.

Ap Photo

#12, Halliburton

Era: Early 2000s

It’s eyebrow-raising enough when a company’s CEO becomes vice president of the United States. Or when that company, Halliburton, starts receiving big contracts due to a war pushed by that vice president, Dick Cheney. But when that company begins charging the government for $600 hammers and $1,000 toilet seats, a national scandal is brewing. Besides the war profiteering, Halliburton has also caught flak for environmental controversies, from a toxic vapor cloud that formed over Farmington, New Mexico, after chemicals escaped from a tank, to being in charge of the cement job on the BP oil rig that is leaking. “Ironically, they may emerge as a good guy in the BP oil spill for having urged more safeguards, which BP rejected,” notes Stephen Shepard, former editor in chief of BusinessWeek and one of our panelists.
Correction: Halliburton was responsible for a toxic vapor cloud over Farmington, New Mexico, not Farmingham as reported in an earlier version of this caption.

Andre Felipe / Getty Images

#11, Monsanto

Eras: 1970s-1980s; 2000s

One word: dioxin. Monsanto spilled 19,000 gallons of a wood-treatment chemical containing the poison in Sturgeon, Missouri. After eight years of litigation, 65 plaintiffs claiming they were never told about the spill and fell ill were awarded $16.2 million. Monsanto was also accused along with other companies of war crimes for producing Agent Orange used during the Vietnam War in a suit brought by Vietnam citizens. The company has more recently come under fire from food activists for its genetically modified seeds and has been, “heavily attacked in Europe and parts of the developing world for promoting GM crops which are seen by some to be harmful to the environment,” notes financial historian Morgan Witzel. Until yesterday, genetically modified alfalfa seeds were banned in the U.S.

Karen Tam / AP Photo

#10, Blackwater

Era: 2000s

Private military company Blackwater attracted such negative connotations during the Iraq War, where its mercenaries were accused of everything from murder to rape, that it recently changed its name to Xe Services. Two Blackwater employees pleaded guilty to arms smuggling in 2007 and in 2010, Gary Jackson, a former Blackwater president, was indicted for making false arms deals to cover up gifts to the king of Jordan. But the worst came September 16, 2007, when Blackwater soldiers killed 17 and wounded 24 Iraqis in a mission gone wrong in Baghdad.

Fabrice Coffrin, AFP / Getty Images

#9, Nestle

Era: 1970s-1980s

The wholesome chocolate company got caught in a nasty breast milk controversy, resulting in a 1977 boycott. Specifically, Nestle came under continued fire for marketing its infant formula in developing countries. Activists claim infant formula is inferior to breast milk, and in developing countries it can lead to death—something they say Nestle has failed to adequately warn in its labelling. Nestle asserts its marketing remains in line with World Health Organization recommendations.

Charles Dharapak / AP Photo

#8, Goldman Sachs

Era: Present

For years, Goldman Sachs was just seen as arrogantly successful, and even as the 2008-2009 financial crisis raged, Goldman emerged relatively unscathed among vast waves of negative publicity that were crashing about the financial sector. But then people started asking questions: Why did Goldman get all of its money back from AIG, while taxpayers footed the bill? Why did the firm’s former chief, as Treasury secretary, cut that deal? In April 2010, the SEC sued Goldman for misleading clients on risky investments, then betting the investments would fail. “It wouldn't be on this list at any time before the 21st century,” says Harvard Business School professor emeritus Thomas McCraw. That platinum reputation suddenly has cakes of tarnish.

Tim Matsui / Getty Images

#7, Microsoft

Era: 1980s

The company that made personal computers ubiquitous and turned Bill Gates into the world’s richest man has a long history of being hated for its anti-competitive and monopolistic practices. It has attracted significant vitriol for its Windows operating system, which isn’t compatible with other operating systems, and for its exclusivity deals with hardware manufacturers that have led to pricing control and market dominance. It was “undoubtedly the most hated company in its industry for three decades, and detested by many of its business customers, as well,” says Harvard’s McCraw.

Mark Wilson / Getty Images

#6, BP

Era: Present

BP’s safety record was already atrocious, but that was hidden by the leafy green logo and hundreds of millions in marketing. Then, in the blink of an eye, BP became most reviled in the world—its fate since its Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded on April 20, rupturing a mile-deep pipeline that continues to gush thousands of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. CEO Tony Hayward has compounded the disaster with inept empathy ( calling it “relatively tiny” and saying he’d “like his life back”), and 220 federal lawsuits have already been filed against BP. “Probably more people in America 'hate' BP today than 'hated' Standard Oil after 1903, but that is in part because the population is larger and in part because the media have a longer reach,” says Witzel.

Henry Griffin / AP Photo

#5, ITT

Era: 1970s

ITT—formerly International Telephone & Telegraph—funneled money to opponents of then-Chilean presidential hopeful Salvador Allende in 1970. The company owned a large chunk of the Chilean telecommunications firm Chitelco, and saw the Marxist Allende as anti-business. “The U.S. government harshly opposed the Allende government (who led a coalition of left-wing parties),” notes Illinois professor Marcelo Bucheli. Allende won in 1970, but was overthrown in 1973 by dictator Augusto Pinochet, with help from the U.S. government—a move that seemed to have ITT’s fingerprints. The company’s image rebounded in the ensuing decades, and the company has been named nine times as one of Forbes’ best big companies.

Cornell Capa, Time & Life Pictures / Getty Images

#4, United Fruit Company

Era: 1900s-1950s

The United Fruit Company literally created the term banana republic. Founded in Central America by Brooklynite Minor Keith following a failed passenger railroad venture, United Fruit did its best to make sure the local governments were friendly to its banana export dominance, with U.S. government forces often enforcing its bidding. In 1901, the company took over postal operations for Guatemala, and thousands of low-wage workers’ lives were lost and the Guatemalan government was overthrown. Public sentiment toward United Fruit was crystallized by Pablo Neruda in his 1950 poem Canto General: “With the bloodthirsty flies/came the Fruit Company,/amassed coffee and fruit/in ships which put to sea like/overloaded trays with the treasures/from our sunken lands.”

AP Photo; Rob Stapleton / AP Photo

#3, Exxon

Era: 1980s-1990s

The worst natural disaster until the BP leak in the Gulf of Mexico was the Exxon Valdez oil spill. On March 24, 1989, the tanker ran aground in southern Alaska, spilling 11 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound. Exxon spent $2.1 billion on the cleanup and nearly a billion dollars in litigation and interest to settle lawsuits. The company has overhauled its practices, but the brand damage, like the environmental damage, lingers. RIGHT: Crews use high-pressure hoses to blast the rocks on this beach front on Naked Island, Alaska, April 21, 1989.

Peter Kemp / AP Photo

#2, Union Carbide

Era: 1980s

Responsible for the deadliest corporate disaster in history, Union Carbide’s legacy was forever marred on the night of December 2, 1984, after a methyl isocyanate leak in a plant in Bhopal, India, exposed half a million people. More than 2,000 people were immediately killed, and as many as 15,000 deaths occurred in the proceeding years from diseases related to the leak. Union Carbide was sued by the Indian government and agreed to pay $470 million in 1989. “The executives responsible for that just recently received their sentences: two years in jail and $2,100, which many considered laughable,” notes Illinois professor Marcelo Bucheli.

Stock Montage / Getty Images

#1, Standard Oil

Era: 1900s

While name Standard Oil is synonymous with corporate greed, it was “widely admired in the 1880s and 1890s,” notes financial historian Morgen Witzel. Led by John D. Rockefeller, the company found creative ways to swallow smaller oil companies with ruthless, monopolistic corporate practices. Beginning around 1903, however, the press began examining its tactics, led by Ida Tarbell and a generation of muckrakers, who used the media to turn public sentiment against the company. The U.S. Department of Justice finally sued Standard Oil for violating the Sherman Antitrust Act, and in 1911, the Supreme Court agreed, shattering Rockefeller’s company into 34 separate entities, which went on to become little firms called Mobil, Exxon, Chevron, and Amoco, among others.