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America’s iconic companies that disappeared

Mighty giants that fell
John Foxx | Stockbyte | Getty Images

The business landscape has changed significantly in the past 25 years—not only in how we work but also with whom we work.

It's sometimes easy to forget that king of the hill isn't a permanent position, and companies that seem invincible might not be around forever in their current form—or, in some cases, any form.

Icons fall, and here are some of the names we took for granted in 1989 that have since faded away.

—By Chris Morris, Special to CNBC.com
Posted 29 April 2014
Updated 15 April 2015

Amoco
An Amoco gas station displays its gas prices April 24, 2001 in Chicago.
Tim Boyle | Newsmakers | Getty Images

The oil company that started in 1910 was a giant in 1989. It was a leader in the lead-free gas movement and became the largest natural-gas producer in North America in the late '90s. Amoco never saw significant financial troubles: In 1997 the company earned $2.7 billion on revenue of $36.3 billion. But in 1998 it merged with British Petroleum in a $61 billion deal. Existing service stations were rebranded under the BP name, and the Amoco brand slowly dissolved.

Bethlehem Steel
The Bethlehem Steel plant sits idle January 6, 2003 in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. The plant at company headquarters closed in 1998.
Getty Images

Once America's second-largest shipbuilder and steel producer, Bethlehem Steel was beginning its decline in the late '80s, as the U.S. transitioned away from industrial manufacturing (amid lower labor costs in other countries).

But the thought of the company that built the Golden Gate Bridge going away entirely was still something few considered. It gave up shibuilding in 1997, and in 2001 the company was forced to file for bankruptcy, weighed down in part by spiraling pension and health-care costs as workers were laid off. Two years later International Steel Group bought what was left.

Circuit City
People walk by a branch of US electronic giant retailer Circuit City with advertisements announcing the entire store on sale prior to the closure of this branch in New York.
Emmanuel Dunand | AFP | Getty Images

Along with Best Buy, this electronics retailer was where you went to pick up the latest and greatest gadget through much of the 1990s. As online shopping took off, though, things began to falter. And bad retail locations and questionable business moves (like abandoning its lucrative appliance-sales business and partnering exclusively with Verizon for mobile phone sales) led to bankruptcy.

Officials tried to secure a buyer but were unable to do so, forcing the company to lay off 30,000 employees and liquidate its stores in 2009.

Compaq
Compaq computers
Getty Images

In the early days of the personal computer, Compaq was a premier name, and by the mid-'90s it was the country's largest supplier of PC systems. By the end of that decade, though, it was suffering from product-quality issues and wasn't able to keep up with the rapidly changing industry.

Lower-cost competitors, like Dell, began capturing the attention of consumers—and the collapse of the dot-com bubble didn't help matters, as demand for the company's high-end systems evaporated. In 2002 the company agreed to merge with Hewlett-Packard, and the Compaq name slowly evaporated.

Lehman Brothers
September 15, 2008, the day the 150-year-old Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy.
Keith Lew | Flickr Vision | Getty Images

Once the fourth-largest investment bank in the country, Lehman's 2008 bankruptcy filing was the largest in U.S. history, with the firm holding more than $600 billion in assets. It was something that seemed unthinkable just a few years prior, but weighed down by toxic housing assets and unable to find a buyer, the company ended up playing a significant role in the global financial crisis.

After the bankruptcy filing, Barclays bought the company's North American division for just $1.75 billion, with Nomura Holdings taking over the Asia-Pacific, European and Middle Eastern operations.

Levitz Furniture
Traffic cones block the entrance to a closed Levitz furniture store July 7, 2009 in Rohnert Park, California.
Getty Images

Even with the company gone, the jingle of this furniture retailer— "You'll love it at Levitz"—still echoes in many a baby boomer's head. Levitz was the first company to sell furniture in a warehouse-style location, something that's standard today.

Founded in 1910, it grew to 72 warehouse showrooms and 62 smaller satellite stores in 26 states and then went through two bankruptcies and two restructurings in 1997 and 2005. Yet it was unable to overcome a series of financial crises. It filed for bankruptcy again in 2007 and began liquidating its remaining stores the following years.

MCI-WorldCom
Bernard J. Ebbers, right, president and CEO of MCI WorldCom Inc., speaks as William T. Esrey, chairman and CEO of Sprint Corp., listens during a news conference in New York, October 5, 1999.
Jon Gordon | Newsmakers | Getty Images

Once the country's second-largest long-distance company, MCI-Worldcom (which at the end was known simply as Worldcom) is remembered only due to the actions of its CEO, Bernie Ebbers. The 63-year-old executive was convicted of orchestrating an accounting fraud scheme worth $11 billion and was sentenced to 25 years in prison in 2005.

The decline started in 2000 when the government blocked a proposed merger between the company and Sprint. Investors weren't aware of that until much later, though, due to fraudulent accounting methods used by the company that inflated assets. It filed for bankruptcy in 2002, eventually emerging in 2004. A year later Verizon acquired the company for $7.6 billion.

Pan Am World Airways
Pan Am Boeing 747-100 landing at Tempelhof Airport.
Ralf Manteufel | Wikipedia

Pan Am wasn't at the height of its power in 1989, but it was still going strong, logging more than 29 million revenue passenger miles that year. Efforts to turn around the world's largest international air carrier had been going well until the previous year, when the terrorist bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 claimed 270 lives. After that, travelers began to avoid the airline.

In 1989 the carrier proposed a merger with Northwest but was ultimately outbid. And when fuel prices soared during the first Gulf War, the company's losses multiplied to the point where it began selling off its routes. In 1991, Pan Am filed for bankruptcy, citing liabilities of $2.52 billion as of March 31 of that year. It shut down abruptly that December, leaving thousands of travelers scrambling.

Tower Records
A man walks in front of a recently closed Tower Records store in Long Beach, California March 26, 2007. Traditional record stores have been early victims of the music industry's transition, as consumers turn away from albums to single digital songs.
Getty Images

The year 1989 was a turning point for CDs, since it marked the first time the new music-storage format outsold LPs. And that was when the clock started ticking for Tower Records, a retail music chain based in Sacramento, Calif. The company, which had a flagship location in Times Square and was the first to offer "Scan and Listen" stations in its stores (where users could scan a CD and listen to audio samples), tried hard to stay ahead of the curve.

It was even the first to offer online sales. But aggressive expansion and the changes in the music industry forced it into bankruptcy in 2004 and again in 2006, when it was liquidated and all remaining stores were closed. The website's still around, but it's run by a different company these days.

F.W. Woolworth
eople walk past an F.W. Woolworth five and dime store on a city street, 1940s.
Martin Forstenzer | Getty Images

Woolworth's was the original five-and-dime store, blazing the trail for other retailers in the late 1800s. In the 1960s it was the site of the Greensboro sit-in that became a key moment in the civil rights movement. The department-store chain was already in decline in 1989 but didn't seem in danger of extinction.

A 1993 restructuring closed half of its 800 stores. And slowly but surely the rest followed. Woolworth as a retail brand and name is gone, but the company technically lives on. It renamed itself the Venator Group and began shifting its focus to its footwear division in 2001. Today it's known as Foot Locker.

Washington Mutual
Hand-painted signs advertise rates on FDIC insured certificate of deposit (CD) accounts at a Washington Mutual bank branch in Orem, Utah.
George Frey | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Another victim of the financial crisis, WaMu was once the country's largest savings and loan, with assets of $327.9 billion in 2007. Its collapse was the largest bank failure in American history.

The once-conservative institution's decision during the real estate bubble to sell risky mortgages to home buyers resulted in big losses. And in a nine-day period in 2008, the bank saw depositors withdraw $16.7 billion. That run prompted the government to seize the bank and sell most of its assets to JPMorgan Chase.