Can a family business grow into a multi-national public company without losing its values? You decide.

While the world is becoming increasingly connected through technology and mobile devices, there’s one company that is going out of its way to ensure we stay untouched. For 117 years, medical technology company BD (Becton Dickinson and Company) has supplied medical devices and diagnostic equipment to help protect healthcare workers while they work to cure patients and alleviate suffering.

The company’s first patent was a glass syringe in 1898 and this early drive for innovation produced successive leaders, who continued to oversee medical firsts, notably, easy-to-use injection devices designed to protect healthcare workers from needlestick injuries and exposure to bloodborne pathogens.

According to the World Health Organization, over two-thirds of all people infected with HIV/AIDS live in sub-Saharan Africa, yet the continent relies on just 3 percent of the world’s healthcare workforce, a disparity that creates tremendous stress for caregivers. It’s estimated that African health systems may lose 20 percent of their workers to HIV/AIDS in the coming years due to illness and unacceptable working conditions.

From the humble glass syringe, dozens of patents followed at BD, all aimed at delivering medication and diagnostic products that reveal quick results while protecting those that administered them. Generations of patients might recall some of their landmark inventions – the Bulb Syringe, the ACE bandage (All Cotton Elastic), the stethoscope, the first insulin syringe and the BD Vacutainer System, the now familiar device that draws blood by vacuum through a needle into a test tube – when you can bear to watch, of course.

BD now has a global presence in more than 50 countries and has branched out into three divisions: Medical, Diagnostics and Biosciences. It has also been named one of the World’s Most Admired Companies by Fortune and one of the most ethical ones, too. The company’s motto is “helping all people live healthy lives” and it has embarked on a two-pronged marketing approach – strengthening existing healthcare systems and increasing access to healthcare in the developing world.

Anyone who has ever anxiously awaited medical test results will know that the quality and speed of diagnosing infectious diseases or cancers is a crucial stage of treating illness effectively. While many pharmaceutical companies focus exclusively on developing drugs, BD has focused on a critical part of the treatment – delivery into your body. US$8 billion in annual revenue puts them in the category of serious global player, yet they’ve also realized that non-profit and humanitarian initiatives are an important part in helping create their vision of a healthier planet and stronger communities.

Around 60 percent of BD’s sales are outside the U.S., with 24 percent of this within emerging markets. Vincent Forlenza joined BD in 1980 and now holds three roles at the company, chairman of the board, CEO and president. When reflecting on how they’ve achieved such impact around the world since the founder’s sons took the company global in 1948, Forlenza cites values as a key ingredient. aids

“Looking back, we’re built on a strong foundation of core values, that started with quality and giving back to the communities we serve,” he says.  “This came from the Becton and Dickinson families themselves and from their sense of purpose around improving healthcare. The values they preached from the start have been fundamental to the success of the company.” Gary Cohen, BD’s executive vice president (pictured above in Uganda), who has helped take the idea of shared value and turn it into a practical management system, has helped Forlenza with the ongoing maintenance of these values. “Shared value is in the DNA of our company, says Cohen.

“It goes all the way back to when the first polio vaccine trials were being done. They didn’t have disposable syringes at the time, so we had to invent one.” A huge focus on health and safety in the 1980s, coupled with large, emerging healthcare issues, made BD realize that society wasn’t aligned to meet those needs. BD’s company records show that the great medical needs of the time were always tackled with enthusiasm, and it’s no different today.

Much of their work has been on HIV/AIDS, one of the biggest medical threats of our time, and they have worked hard at refining CD4 cell testing, a white blood cell count that indicates the stage of HIV or AIDS in a patient. “This cutting-edge approach is something that’s embedded in our company history, and very much aligned with our founders,” says Forlenza.

“I’m the seventh CEO in 117 years, in a company that’s had uninterrupted structure, the only change being in 1962, when we went from being a family health company to a publicly traded company on the NYSE. There haven’t been any takeovers, major mergers or major changes in legal structure.” This unbroken culture of doing good was retained when the company became a global, publicly traded company.

It’s a culture that influences BD’s workers each day, by instilling a responsibility for doing well financially and understanding the needs of all stakeholders. “None of this would be sustainable without creating resources to keep moving forward and innovating continually,” says Forlenza. A company’s longevity seems to be directly linked to having strong principles, and a stable executive team with steady leadership is valuable, too.

“If you look back at Jim Collins’ work in the 1990s  – Built to Last and Good to Great  – he talks about Level Five Leadership,” says Cohen. There’s a continuity of leadership in the companies that are the highest performing, because they have missions that go beyond profit only.”